President Trump said Tuesday that he would look “very carefully” at Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta’s lenient plea deal with a sex offender more than a decade ago as the embattled Cabinet member came under mounting pressure from Democrats to resign.
In a White House known for unusually high turnover, and a steady drumbeat of scandals, Acosta is the latest department chief or top presidential aide to face ethical or legal problems.
As a U.S. attorney in Florida in 2008, Acosta agreed to a secret deal that let billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein serve 13 months in a local jail — with a generous work release program — rather than face trial and a potential life sentence in federal prison.
“I would think you’d probably find that they would wish they’d maybe did it a different way,” Trump told reporters Tuesday at the White House. But Trump added that “there were a lot of people involved in that decision, not just him.”
“I feel very badly, actually, for Secretary Acosta because I’ve known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job,” he said. “I feel very badly about that whole situation.”
After a federal judge in February found that Acosta had violated the law by concealing the plea agreement from Epstein’s victims, the Justice Department opened an investigation into his handling of the case. Acosta has denied any wrongdoing.
But senior Democrats demanded Acosta resign this week after federal prosecutors in New York — who were not bound by the Florida deal — charged Epstein with luring underage girls to his Manhattan townhouse and abusing them.
Acosta’s opponents argued that the plea deal he approved in Florida allowed Epstein to continue his pattern of sexual misconduct.
For his part, Acosta praised the latest prosecution, calling Epstein’s alleged crimes “horrific” and suggesting that prosecutors in Florida had done all they could.
“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 tweeted. “Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”
Democratic leaders issued a flurry of calls Tuesday for Acosta to step down.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on the Senate floor that “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,” he said. “Instead of prosecuting a predator and serial sex trafficker of children, Acosta chose to let him off easy. This is not acceptable.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) also called for Acosta’s resignation, tweeting that he “shielded Epstein from the justice he deserved and kept victims voiceless for over a decade.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) also urged Acosta to resign. “This type of behavior is inexcusable and should have never been rewarded with a cabinet position,” he tweeted.
On Monday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Acosta “must step down,” tweeting that “he engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice.”
She also wrote that Trump knew about the 2008 deal when he appointed Acosta Labor secretary.
In his comments Tuesday, Trump sought to distance himself from Epstein, with whom he had often socialized in Palm Beach. Trump said he had a “falling out” with the businessman more than a decade ago.
“I don’t think I’ve spoken to him for 15 years,” he said. “I wasn’t a fan.”
Trump had publicly praised Epstein, including his penchant for young women, before his first arrest.
“I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,” Trump said in a 2002 New York Magazine profile of Epstein. “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. No doubt about it – Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”