As President Donald Trump struggles to shake a child-sex scandal involving a former friend, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta defended a 2007 plea deal he offered billionaire financier and accused sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
Acosta used an afternoon press conference to call alleged sex-trafficking by Epstein “despicable,” and said his actions deserve a “stiffer sentence” than the 13 months he served last decade. He called a new New York case against him that included charges filed Monday an “important opportunity to more fully bring Epstein to justice.”
The former United States attorney walked reporters through a 2007 investigation and prosecutors’ decision-making in “guilty pleas vs. trials.”
“How do you weigh those two if going to trial … is a roll of the dice?” he said, adding the ultimate goal then was to “put Epstein behind bars,” while ensuring Epstein registered as a sex offender and his victims were offered “restitution.”
What’s more, Acosta contended the 2007 case was “unusual” because it was “complicated by the fact this matters started as a state investigation.”
Epstein last decade served 13 months in the Palm Beach County, Fla., 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.
Under questioning from reporters, Acosta suggested his former U.S. attorney’s office questioned whether a criminal trial would have guaranteed a guilty verdict against Epstein.
“There is a significant gulf being evidence to go to trial and being confident in [the outcome] of that trial,” he said, adding the decision to offer the plea deal was made by a group of prosecutors who each had many years of experience with such cases.
“We believe that we proceeded appropriately,” he said, expressing sympathy for Epstein’s then-young victims. “Based on the evidence, there was value to getting a guilty plea and having him register. Look, having no regrets is a very hard question. … You always look back and say, ‘What if?’”
But he several times under questioning opted against apologizing to the victims in the 2007 case that learned of the plea agreement after the fact, saying only “it’s important that we understand that the men and women in my office … have spent their careers prosecuting these types of cases. And in our heart, we were trying to do the right thing for these victims,” he said. “Each one of these cases is devastating.”
He also noted he has daughters, telling reporters “I don’t know if I can say what I’d be feeling on television” if they went through what Epstein’s victims did.
Meantime, the Labor secretary criticized media reports that he negotiated the 2007 plea agreement with one of Epstein’s lawyers at a swanky Marriott hotel breakfast session.
“Facts become facts because they’re in a newspaper rather than in a record,” he said. “I scratch my head about that.”
He contended he was giving a speech and staying at the hotel, and the meeting occurred “after … The agreement had been reached.” He claimed documents the Labor department is making available would confirm that.
Asked several times if his then-office violated federal law by not contacting Epstein’s victims before the plea deal was etched in stone, he replied at one point that he followed Justice Department internal guidelines.
A ‘terrific guy’
Trump is under increasing pressure from Democratic lawmakers and women’s advocates to fire Acosta amid controversy over the Epstein plea.
Responding to speculation Trump might terminate him, Acosta told reporters his relationship with the president is “outstanding.” The secretary noted that Trump a day earlier said he is doing a “great job.”
When asked about his motivations for holding the press conference, Acosta said, “I’m not here to send any message to the president.” He added this message to Epstein’s other potential victims: “You need to come forward.” Any new charges could be brought by federal or state prosecutors, he noted.
Some media reports have said White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney is upset with him over the matter and what conservatives view as his slow pace undoing Obama-era regulations. Acosta said Mulvaney called him Wednesday morning to say such articles “are, in his words, B.S.”
Epstein, who has ties to Trump and former President Bill Clinton, was charged in a Manhattan federal court on Monday on sex-trafficking charges. 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.
That Sunshine State city also is home to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
Trump in recent days has attempted to distance between himself from Epstein, saying he hasn’t talked to him in 15 years. But in 2002, Trump had little negative to say about his then-friend, calling “Jeff” a “terrific guy” in a 17-year-old New York Magazine interview and noting the financier’s affinity for women “on the younger side.”
Trump first praised his Labor secretary on Tuesday before showing the first signs of possibly removing him, likely if news coverage continues to portray himself negatively or if GOP lawmakers change course and call for Acosta’s ouster. But his next statement suggested his Labor secretary might soon be out of a job.
“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.
Pressed on why he appeared so confident that Trump would keep him on, Acosta sidestepped Wednesday, saying, “If at some point the president decides I’m not the person to perform this job, I respect that.”
One White House official said he did not know if Trump watched the press conference, noting the president was scheduled to have several policy meetings in the afternoon.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats have forcefully called for Acosta to step down or be terminated, while Congressional Republicans largely dodged the issue this week, with some saying they needed more information and others calling for an investigation into how Acosta handled the 2007 case.
Delaware Democrat Sen. Chris Coons told CNN on Wednesday that “it’ll be exceptionally difficult for him to be an effective secretary of Labor.
“I do expect that the House will take up investigations into the relationship between Secretary Acosta, Mr. Epstein, President Trump, and others in his broader circle to try and better understand how this striking plea agreement was reached,” Coons said.
Later Wednesday, the House Oversight and Reform Committee invited the embattled Acosta to answer questions on July 23 about the non-prosecution agreement he negotiated with the alleged pedophile.
That panel is controlled by Democrats.
Michael Macagnone contributed to this story.