Embattled Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned Friday amid a churning scandal over a plea deal related to billionaire financier Jeffery Epstein and sex acts with minors.
President Donald Trump told reporters that Acosta had made the decision to resign as he departed for Wisconsin and Ohio, where the president will hold fundraisers and speak about a trade deal.
Acosta made the announcement standing beside Trump on the South Lawn of the White House just two days after a news conference that appeared to be designed as an attempt to save his job. Trump praised Acosta’s performance at that press conference, but the duo said a change is coming at the Labor Department.
Acosta said he concluded it is not “right or fair” to stay on with so much focus on his role in the 2007 plea arrangement. “I thought the right thing was to step aside,” he said.
The outgoing Labor chief praised the health of the U.S. economy, saying “that’s what this administration needs to focus on.”
Trump called him a “great Labor secretary, not a good one” amid reports the president and others were frustrated with Acosta over other matters, such as a slower-than-desired pace at cutting regulations.
Trump said that Acosta “felt the constant drumbeat of press about a prosecution which took place under his watch more than 12 years ago was bad for the Administration, which he so strongly believes in.”
Alex Acosta informed me this morning that he felt the constant drumbeat of press about a prosecution which took place under his watch more than 12 years ago was bad for the Administration, which he so strongly believes in, and he graciously tendered his resignation….— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 12, 2019
Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella will become acting secretary next week when Acosta formally vacates the post, Trump said after reading Pizzella’s name from a note card.
….Alex was a great Secretary of Labor and his service is truly appreciated. He will be replaced on an acting basis by Pat Pizzella, the current Deputy Secretary.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 12, 2019
Pizzella would become the latest non-Senate confirmed department head in Trump’s Cabinet. If Trump nominates a permanent replacement, the nominee would have to go through a Senate confirmation process.
The president has never explained what he meant when he said he prefers acting secretaries because they give him more “flexibility.”
Pizzella is a longtime Washington insider. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he was a lobbyist at the firm now known as K&L Gates (then Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds), where he was colleagues with the now infamous K Streeter Jack Abramoff, who served time in prison on fraud and conspiracy convictions.
Pizzella, who was not implicated in the Abramoff scandal, once worked with some of Abramoff’s clients such as the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, lobbying disclosure records show.
Democratic lawmakers began to react to Acosta’s resignation almost immediately. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a 2020 presidential candidate, tweeted “Good riddance.”
Good riddance. https://t.co/vjTQCQsDzV— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) July 12, 2019
Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Chairman David N. Cicilline of Rhode Island said in a statement that Acosta “never should have been nominated or confirmed in the first place.”
“Sadly, this is what we’ve come to expect under the most corrupt administration in our history, and a Republican Senate that refuses to stand up to President Trump. The American people deserve better,” he added.
Trump was under increasing pressure from Democratic lawmakers and women’s advocates to remove Acosta, who as a United States attorney in Florida in 2007 agreed to what is widely viewed as a light deal with Epstein over a case involving girls as young as 14.
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.
Palm Beach also is home to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, which he visits frequently during the winter months.
Trump in recent days has attempted to put distance between himself and Epstein, saying he hasn’t talked to him in 15 years.
But a 2002 interview has become problematic for Trump and his perpetually scandal-plagued White House. At the time, the then-New York real estate mogul called “Jeff” a “terrific guy.”
In comments to New York Magazine, the now-chief executive 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.”
Though Trump praised Acosta on Tuesday, he also showed the first signs of being willing to fire him.
Asked about his Labor secretary by reporters in the Oval Office, 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. “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 Epstein’s arrest on sex-trafficking charges and the 2007 plea deal that Acosta approved had left the Labor secretary on shaky ground.
“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.
“I think he should step down and the president should call for that,” Pelosi 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.
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 Epstein’s 2007 case. During Trump’s term, most Republicans in Congress have been cognizant of his high popularity among GOP voters and have shied away from breaking with him.
For Trump, the pressure likely could have conjured fears the scandal would further hurt his standing among suburban women and senior citizen voters as he gears up for a tough reelection fight.
Lindsey McPherson and Kate Ackley contributed to this report.