Labor Secretary Alex Acosta resigned Friday amid intense scrutiny of his role as a U.S. attorney a decade ago in a deal with Jeffrey Epstein that allowed the financier to plead guilty to lesser offenses in a sex-crimes case involving underage girls.
President Trump told reporters Friday morning that Acosta had decided to step aside. He called Acosta a “great labor secretary, not a good one” and a “tremendous talent.”
“This was him, not me,” Trump said of the resignation decision, as Acosta stood by his side. “I said to Alex, you don’t have to do this.
Acosta, the only Hispanic in Trump’s Cabinet, said he had submitted his resignation to take effect in a week.
“I don’t think it is right and fair for this administration’s labor department to have Epstein as the focus rather than the incredible economy we have today,” Acosta said. “It would be selfish for me to stay in the position and continue talking about a case that is 12 years old.”
Trump said that Patrick Pizzella, the deputy secretary of labor, will become acting secretary of the department.
The 2008 plea deal in Florida came under renewed scrutiny in light of Epstein’s indictment Monday on more child sex trafficking charges in New York.
At a news conference Wednesday, Acosta defended his role as the federal prosecutor in brokering the plea deal for Epstein, but lawyers for alleged victims criticized his explanation, and Democrats called for him to appear at a congressional hearing in two weeks.
He said a state’s attorney in Palm Beach County was preparing to allow Epstein to plead to a single charge of solicitation that did not make a reference to the age of the female minor. That deal would have carried no jail time and would not have required Epstein to register as a sex offender.
“We wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” Acosta said. “He needed to go to jail.”
The former state’s attorney for Palm Beach County at the time of the Epstein plea deal released a statement disputing Acosta’s account following the news conference.
“I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong,” said Barry E. Krischer, who added that Acosta could have moved forward with a 53-page indictment that his office had drafted.
After Acosta’s news conference, the reaction inside the White House was mixed, according to a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more candidly.
Some aides thought Acosta had adequately explained his handling of the Epstein case, and had “won” by not further harming himself, the official said. But others had been expecting a more animated performance and found Acosta’s time before the cameras disappointing, saying he had failed to mount a full-throated defense of himself.
Trump expressed skepticism at Acosta’s performance and began asking senior aides what he should do about him, according to two White House officials, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.
Acosta was disliked by acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who told others he was ineffective at implementing the administration’s deregulation agenda, the officials said.
But Trump did not originally want to be seen as cutting ties with him over a decade-old episode, even as some of his longest advisers believed Acosta’s departure was inevitable given the cascade of sustained news coverage and the facts of the case.
A Republican strategist frequently in touch with the White House said lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office viewed the 2008 plea deal as seriously flawed and did not expect the controversy to fade.
The strategist, who was not authorized to speak for the White House and who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the local prosecutor’s comments contradicting Acosta were also “pretty awful.”
Trump told reporters he thought Acosta had “explained” the plea deal during his news conference.
“He made a deal that people were happy with, and 12 years later they weren’t happy with it,” Trump said. “You’ll have to figure that out.”
Trump, who socialized with Epstein in Manhattan and Palm Beach in the early 2000s, said again Friday that the two had not spoken in more than 15 years.
“I wasn’t a big fan, and now if you look at the remnants, it hurt this man,” Trump said, referring to Acosta. “I will say this, and I say it again loud and clear: Alex Acosta was a great secretary of labor.”
Publicly, congressional Republicans continued to stand by Acosta, saying issues about the plea deal were vetted at his confirmation hearing in 2017.
Epstein, 66, signed a non-prosecution agreement with federal authorities and pleaded guilty in state court in 2008 to felony solicitation of underage girls.
During his 13-month sentence in a Palm Beach, Fla., jail, Epstein was allowed to work out of his office six days a week. As U.S. attorney, Acosta approved the deal. A federal judge this year ruled that prosecutors violated the rights of victims by failing to notify them of an agreement not to bring federal charges.
On Tuesday, Acosta mounted a vigorous self-defense on Twitter, writing that the crimes committed by Epstein were “horrific” and that he was pleased prosecutors in New York were moving forward with a new case.
He suggested the evidence prosecutors now have — including lewd photographs of underage girls seized in a raid on Epstein’s mansion — were not available to his team when he was Miami’s U.S. attorney from 2005 to 2009.
Acosta had faced a cascade of calls to resign from Democrats, including most of the party’s presidential contenders, and many were quick to welcome his decision on Friday. That included Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“Alex Acosta should never have been nominated as Labor Secretary,” he said in a tweet. “Now is the time to put an end to our two-tiered criminal justice system. We need a Labor Secretary who puts workers first, not billionaires — and certainly not billionaire sexual predators of underage girls.”
Acosta’s resignation was also welcomed by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.
“Given the serious questions about his handling of the Epstein case and his failure to take responsibility for his conduct, Mr. Acosta was no longer entitled to public confidence,” he said in a statement. “The Epstein case is an extraordinary example of the ordinary ways in which money and power often determine who prevails in our criminal justice system. We must have a national conversation about the deep inequities that this case represents.”
Republicans were more muted in their response.
Asked about Acosta’s resignation while preparing to fly with Trump on Air Force One, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said, “It’s really the president’s call. Every member of the Cabinet serves at his pleasure.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) issued a statement that did not mention Acosta by name but was critical of “the pathetically short sentence of Jeffrey Epstein.”
“This story can’t just drift away because this has never been about politics but is instead about justice,” Sasse said. “The young women who were victimized by Epstein’s trafficking network deserve confidence that this will never happen again.”
A lawyer for one of Epstein’s victims called Acosta’s resignation a step toward accountability.
“It is fantastic news that finally the people who were involved in this awful sweetheart deal for a pedophile are being held to account for their failures,” said Spencer Kuvin, a Florida-based attorney who represented the 14-year-old girl who first reported Epstein to police.
“We should never allow an official who has been held to break the law by a federal court to hold an office in the president’s Cabinet.”
Kuvin was referring to a ruling in February that prosecutors had acted improperly in reaching the agreement with Epstein without telling the victims.
|The Washington Post