Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta defended a secret 2008 plea deal that let Jeffrey Epstein avoid federal prosecution on charges that he molested teenage girls in a press conference on Wednesday.
“Times have changed and coverage of this case has certainly changed since ,” Acosta told reporters. “Facts are important and facts are being overlooked.”
“Simply put, the Palm Beach state attorney’s office was ready to let Epstein walk free, no jail time,” he added. “Prosecutors in my former office found this to be completely unacceptable.”
The deal Acosta helped broker has come under new and intense scrutiny after prosecutors in New York on Monday brought new child sex-trafficking charges alleging Epstein abused dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s, paying them hundreds of dollars in cash for massages, then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York. Epstein has pleaded not guilty to the charges; if convicted he could be imprisoned for the rest of his life.
Top Democrats on Capitol Hill have demanded Acosta exit the administration over the plea deal. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) tweeted late Monday: “.@SecretaryAcosta must step down. As US Attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice. This was known by @POTUS when he appointed him to the cabinet.”
The following day, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) echoed Pelosi’s remarks, accusing the former Miami federal prosecutor of being too lenient with the wealthy financier.
“Instead of prosecuting a predator and serial sex trafficker of children, Acosta chose to let him off easy,” said Schumer. “This is not acceptable. We cannot have as one of the leading appointed officials in America someone who has done this.”
White House hopefuls Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) have also called for Acosta to resign.
Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Jamie Raskin (D-MD) sent Acosta a letter Wednesday inviting him to testify July 23rd.
Thus far, President Trump has defended Acosta, praising his work as labor secretary and saying he felt “very badly” for him “because I’ve known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job.” Still, he said, he would be looking at the circumstances of the case “very closely.”
Of Epstein’s arrest, President Trump said he was “not a fan” of the wealthy investor, citing a “falling out” 15 years ago.
“I know him, just like everybody in Palm Beach knew him,” President Trump told reporters in the Oval Office with the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. “People in Palm Beach knew him. He was a fixture in Palm Beach.”
“I had a falling out with him a long time ago,” he added. “I don’t think I’ve spoken to him in 15 years. I was not a fan. I was not a fan of his. That I can tell you. I was not a fan.”
The president’s comments came after Acosta welcomed the new charges against Epstein, calling his alleged crimes “horrific.”
“The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence,” Acosta wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “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.”
Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice,” the Trump cabinet member added.
White House aides reportedly told the Washington Post on Wednesday that President Trump is “not inclined” to fire Acosta over the matter.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.