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Senate Republicans tiptoe around Acosta, largely defer on his future

Labor secretary's role in cutting deal with Jeffrey Epstein

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says he’ll defer to the president on Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s future. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., says he’ll defer to the president on Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s future. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Some Republicans in Congress are looking for more answers about Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s conduct as U.S. attorney, but they’re  not joining calls by Democrats that he step down because of a generous plea deal he cut with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

One Republican member of the Judiciary Committee said Tuesday that Acosta should explain his handling of the plea agreement with Epstein.

Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said he would get out ahead of whatever may emerge from any inquiry from the Justice Department, but Senate Republicans more broadly are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“His decision about the plea bargain has been questioned,” Kennedy told reporters. “If I were Secretary Acosta, what I would do is call a press conference and say I’m coming early and I’m staying late, and I’ll answer every single question you have about my decision-making process with respect to that plea bargain.”

Under the plea deal, Epstein served 13 months in the Palm Beach County jail 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.

Kennedy would not say whether Acosta should be summoned to testify by the Judiciary Committee about his time as a U.S. attorney in South Florida.

“If I were the secretary, I wouldn’t let it come to that. I’d hit this thing head on and call a press conference,” Kennedy said, adding that he also would want to hear from the assistant U.S. attorneys who actually worked on the Epstein case.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that it is good that the case against Epstein is going forward, but did not call for Acosta to step down.

“There’s no question that the accusations against Epstein are horrendous and I think that it’s good news that they’re being pursued further,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters Tuesday.

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.

McConnell put the onus on President Donald Trump to take any action against the labor secretary, who struck the plea deal with Epstein in 2007.

“As to Secretary Acosta’s continued service, He serves at the pleasure of the president. I’m inclined to defer to the president to make that decision,” he said.

Trump left open the possibility that he might fire the Labor secretary earlier on Tuesday, after top congressional Democrats called for his ouster.

No Republicans who supported Acosta have called on him to go.

Maine Republican Susan Collins said Tuesday that the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility should look into the plea deal and  “whether or not it was properly handled.“ 

“The allegations are so horrendous and conduct so reprehensible, that standard practice would be that the victims would be notified of a plea agreement,” she told reporters. 

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, concurred with Collins.

“I think that would be an appropriate way to address that, rather than the court of sort of uniformed public opinion,” Cornyn said.

Cornyn did not put much stock in the calls from House and Senate Democrats for Acosta to resign or be fired by Trump.

“I think there’s nothing new that wasn’t in the public domain since before his confirmation,” said Cornyn. “There are those who were against his nomination, and there were those who were just against anybody who happens to work in the administration who obviously aren’t going to be persuaded.”

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander reiterated the view that the handling of Epstein’s Florida plea had been defended by the Justice Department, citing the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump.

“Perhaps the Justice Department will want to take a new look going forward, but it’s pretty hard to criticize a United States attorney if he followed the rules when he approved an agreement,” Alexander said. “And they were then defended by the next two administrations.”

Top Democrats on Capitol Hill are unified in their calls for Acosta’s resignation.

Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Acosta should step down.

“I am calling on Secretary Acosta to resign. It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta’s ability to lead the Department of Labor. If he refuses to resign, President Trump should fire him,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor. “Instead of persecuting a predator and serial sex trafficker of children, Acosta chose to let him off easy.”

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 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.

Lindsey McPherson, John T. Bennett  and Jim Saksa contributed to this report. 

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