President Donald Trump on Tuesday left open the possibility that he might fire Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta over a plea deal he struck last decade with accused child sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein after top congressional Democrats called for his ouster.
Acosta has been an “excellent secretary of Labor,” Trump said. But the president stopped short of saying Acosta would remain a part of his Cabinet as yet another scandal has engulfed his administration.
“He’s done a fantastic job,” Trump said of Acosta. “What happened 12 or 15 years ago … if you go back and look at everybody’s else’s decisions …. I would think you would probably find that they wish they did it maybe a different way.”
But in the next breath, the president left open the possibility that he could fire Acosta after Epstein’s Saturday arrest on sex-trafficking girls as young as 14 years old and the deal Acosta cut when he was a United States attorney in Florida in a 2007 case against Epstein.
“The rest of it, we’ll have to look at it very carefully,” Trump said in response to a question from a reporter in the Oval Office alongside Qatar’s ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.
Epstein, who has ties to Trump and former President Bill Clinton, was charged in a Manhattan federal court on Monday. The indictment document alleges that he “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes” in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida.
Palm Beach also is home to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, which he visits frequently during the winter months.
Trump has attempted to distance himself from Epstein, saying he hasn’t talked to him in 15 years.
In a 2002 interview, however, the then-New York real estate mogul called “Jeff” a “terrific guy.”
In those comments that have become a problem for the president, he also appeared to acknowledge and even make light of the financier’s affinity for young girls.
“He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side,” he told New York Magazine. “No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
“Jeffrey Epstein should have been behind bars years ago as a serial sex trafficker of children,” Schumer said in a tweet Tuesday. “But unfortunately as a U.S. Attorney in Florida in 2008, @SecretaryAcosta chose to let Epstein off easy.
“Acosta must resign. If he refuses, @realDonaldTrump should fire him,” the minority leader wrote.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi put the onus on Trump to get rid of Acosta when asked whether House Democrats would take action to impeach him.
“I think he should step down and the president should call for that,” the California Democrat told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “The president was aware of this case when he nominated him for the cabinet. It’s so completely inappropriate and I don’t know that they understand fully how hurtful this is to the young women who were victimized.”
“When I saw that he had kept the deal a secret from the victims, preventing them from having a full opportunity for justice, that was just beyond,” she added, not finishing the thought.
When pressed whether House committees should investigate the matter Pelosi noted she had spoken on the subject and that the House has a great deal of other work to do.
“It’s up to the president to endorse the integrity of his Cabinet,” she said.
GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine called the charges against Epstein “so horrendous and conduct so reprehensible, that standard practice would be that the victims would be notified of a plea agreement.
“I believe the Office of Professional Responsibility within the Department of Justice should take a look at the  case and whether or not it was properly handled,” she said.
Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination joined the chorus calling for Acosta’s resignation.
All of the senators running — Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — voted against confirming Acosta in 2017, and most of them cited that vote in tweets or statements.
“There are few crimes more horrendous than sexual violence against minors — and enabling that kind of predatory behavior is disgusting,” Gillibrand said.
Harris said “We need leaders committed to fighting for justice for survivors of abuse, not protecting predators.”
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Massachusetts, said Acosta should be impeached if he did not resign. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper tweeted a link to a story about Acosta calling it the “latest disturbing example of rampant corruption and ethical failures in the Trump administration.”
As Trump waited for al-Thami’s black Mercedes sedan to pull under the West Wing portico around noon Tuesday, a Roll Call reporter shouted a question asking why he does not terminate his embattled Labor secretary. Trump glanced toward the assembled press, but did not answer. Nor did he answer this question from another reporter: “Do you support your friend, Jeffrey Epstein?”
About the time Trump appeared in the West Wing entrance doorway, Acosta fired off a series of tweets in which he said the alleged sex-trafficking crimes New York prosecutors say Epstein committed “are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence.”
He also defended the 2007 plea agreement.
“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,” Acosta wrote. “Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”
The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence.— Secretary Acosta (@SecretaryAcosta) July 9, 2019
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.— Secretary Acosta (@SecretaryAcosta) July 9, 2019
Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.— Secretary Acosta (@SecretaryAcosta) July 9, 2019
Epstein served 13 months in the Palm Beach County stockade after pleading guilty to soliciting prostitution from girls as young as 14. But he was allowed to leave the detention facility for up to 16 hours per day.
Lindsey McPherson, Herb Jackson and Jim Saksa contributed to this report.