U.S. Labour Secretary Alexander Acosta on Tuesday defended the way he handled a decade-old sex abuse case against wealthy businessman Jeffrey Epstein as a growing chorus of Democratic politicians called for his resignation, a potential new headache for the White House.
President Donald Trump said from the Oval Office “we’ll look at it very carefully,” but gave a ringing endorsement of Acosta’s current job performance.
“I can tell you that for 2½ years, he’s been just an excellent secretary of labour. He’s done a fantastic job,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
On Monday, U.S. prosecutors in New York accused Epstein, 66, of sex trafficking, in an indictment that detailed how he lured dozens of girls, some as young as 14, to his luxury homes and coerced them into performing sex acts. Epstein has pleaded not guilty.
The prosecutors said they were not bound by the 2008 Florida deal struck by Acosta, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, that allowed Epstein to plea to a lesser offence. Epstein served 13 months in jail with leave during the day and registered as a sex offender.
Acosta, in a series of tweets on Tuesday, commented for the first time since details of the New York indictment were publicly released, saying he was “pleased” prosecutors were pursuing Epstein on new charges. He also spoke to the punishments Epstein was given in the controversial Florida plea deal.
“With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator,” he said.
With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator.
The statements were similar to responses Acosta had for Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia on the matter during confirmation hearings for Acosta in April 2017. He also told Kaine the plea deal had the added benefit of not shielding Epstein and his wealth from potential civil litigation claims from alleged victims.
Trump said Tuesday he “felt very badly” for Acosta amid the criticism he has receiving for his decision in Florida.
“If you go back and look at everybody else’s decisions, whether it’s a U.S. attorney, or an assistant U.S. attorney or a judge, you go back 12 or 15 or 20 years ago and look at their past decisions, I would think you’d probably find that they would wish maybe did it a different way.
“I do hear that there were a lot of people involved in that decision, not just him.”
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others in the party said Tuesday that Acosta must step down.
“I am calling on Secretary Acosta to resign,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor. “It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta’s ability to lead the Department of Labour.”
In a tweet late Monday, Pelosi said: “As U.S. Attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice.”
‘I’m inclined to defer to the president’: McConnell
Acosta was confirmed in the Senate by a 60-38 vote in April 2017, with all 51 Republicans joined by eight Democrats and one independent in approving his nomination.
It was not clear whether Republicans in Congress would stand by Acosta. Senator Mitt Romney and others have said they would withhold comment while investigations were pending.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, called the charges against Epstein “horrendous” when speaking to reporters on Tuesday.
“As to Secretary Acosta’s continued service, he serves at the pleasure of the president, and I’m inclined to defer to the president to make that decision,” said McConnell.
A former U.S. federal prosecutor discusses the charges against Epstein:
Earlier, White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway called Epstein’s alleged crimes “disgusting,” but told reporters on Tuesday that Acosta was “doing a great job.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General William Barr will not recuse himself from involvement in the new indictment, a Justice Department official said Tuesday.
Epstein’s case drew renewed attention earlier this year after a Miami Herald report highlighted the plea deal and victims’ ongoing struggle for justice. In February, a federal judge in Florida ruled the agreement between Acosta and Epstein violated victims’ rights.
The White House at the time said it was looking into the matter, but months passed without substantive comment until New York officials arrested Epstein on Saturday.
Acosta testified to Kaine in 2017 that he understood that the secrecy of a plea deal could “undermine” the public’s trust.
Kaine said on Monday that Acosta “must go” as a result of the “sweetheart deal” he signed off on for Epstein.
Democratic contenders have their say
Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kaine’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate who are running for president, also said the labour secretary should step down.
“The last few days have only highlighted how ethically compromised and unfit to serve he is,” said Warren in a social media post.
I opposed Secretary Acosta’s nomination, and voted against his confirmation. The last few days have only highlighted how ethically compromised and unfit to serve he is. Acosta must resign—now. <a href=”https://t.co/0XPrLO4N9K”>https://t.co/0XPrLO4N9K</a>
Trump knew Epstein, and in a 2002 magazine profile, called him a “terrific guy” with a penchant for dating young girls.
But on Tuesday, Trump said he “was not a fan” of Epstein, claiming the pair had a falling out about 15 years ago.
In addition to Trump, Epstein counted Bill Clinton and Prince Andrew among his acquaintances and friends.
Clinton, through a spokesperson, said he “knows nothing about the terrible crimes” Epstein is accused of, and outlined on Monday the contacts he had with Epstein.
The former president said he has not spoken to Epstein “in well over a decade” and took four trips on the businessman’s plane in 2002 and 2003, with staff and his Secret Service detail accompanying the two men on every leg of the trip.