Embattled Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on Wednesday defended at length his handling of a 2008 plea deal with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein and insisted his relationship with President Trump is “outstanding,” despite swirling questions about his job security.
During a nearly hourlong news conference, Acosta said he is “pleased” that federal prosecutors in New York City are bringing sex trafficking charges against Epstein but argued that “facts are being overlooked” in criticism of the deal he previously struck, which some have called too lenient.
Under that deal, Epstein pleaded guilty to soliciting prostitution under Florida law, registered as a sex offender and spent just over a year in jail while having work-release privileges.
“We believe that we proceeded appropriately,” Acosta told reporters at the Labor Department, where he spoke in detail about how his office ultimately decided to offer a plea deal to Epstein while Acosta served as U.S. attorney in Miami.
“We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail. He needed to go to jail,” Acosta said.
Addressing critics of the deal, Acosta said, “Times have changed, and coverage of this case has certainly changed.”
Acosta was unemotional and unapologetic in defending the deal, saying it was the best outcome he could get at the time. Pushing back on critics who called the agreement lenient, Acosta said the case was initially a state matter and that Epstein would have gone free if his office had not intervened.
“The Palm Beach State Attorney's Office was willing to let Epstein walk free. No jail time. Nothing,” Acosta said.
The Palm Beach state's attorney at the time, Barry Krischer, issued a statement later Wednesday evening calling Acosta's recollection "completely wrong," and arguing he could have moved forward with his own charges.
Acosta told a reporter who asked if he has any regrets that “no regrets is a very hard question” but stressed that he believes it would have been too risky to “roll the dice” by taking Epstein to trial with the evidence his office had.
The Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office had prepared a federal indictment against Epstein, but it was never filed. Acosta has also faced criticism for failing to disclose the plea deal to Epstein’s victims, something he said would have jeopardized the agreement.
Acosta urged victims to come forward in response to repeated questions about whether he wanted to address them, but he stopped short of an apology.
“Everything that the victims have gone through in these cases is horrific, and their response is entirely justified,” he said. “At the same time, I think it’s important to stand up for the prosecutors of my former office and make clear that what they were trying to do was help these victims. They should not be portrayed as individuals that just didn’t care.”
Acosta also argued that social views about victims of sexual crimes have changed in the years following the plea.
“We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight, and we live in a very different world. Today’s world treats victims very, very differently,” he said.
Acosta has faced calls for his resignation over the Epstein plea deal, which allowed the financier to avoid federal prosecution on allegations he sexually abused young girls and enticed his victims to recruit others.
New York prosecutors have brought charges against Epstein based on the old allegations as well as the discovery of a trove of lewd photos of young girls in his Manhattan apartment. Epstein has pleaded not guilty to the new charges. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
It is unusual for a Cabinet official to conduct such a lengthy news conference to defend himself on a nonfamily matter that occurred well before his time in office.
But Trump personally urged Acosta to appear before the press to push back against his critics, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
“I’m not here to send any signal to the president,” Acosta said when asked why he chose to speak about the Epstein case. “A lot of questions were raised. ... I think it’s important that these questions be asked and answered.”
Acosta insisted his relationship with Trump remains strong and pointed to the president’s Tuesday comments, in which he said the Labor secretary has done a “very good” job and that he feels “very badly” for Acosta. Trump has said he would be looking at the Epstein case “very closely.”
“He has very publicly made clear I’ve got his support,” Acosta said of Trump.
Still, Acosta acknowledged the possibility that Trump, who is monitoring news coverage of the Epstein matter closely, could change his mind.
“I am here to talk about this case. I'm doing my job. If at some point the president decides that I am not the best person to do this job, I respect that. That is his choice,” he said.
Acosta also dismissed reports that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is pushing for his ouster, primarily over concerns that he is not pushing hard enough on the administration's deregulation agenda.
The secretary said Mulvaney called him on Wednesday to say their relationship is “excellent” and any story to the contrary is “BS.”
The president has yet to weigh on Acosta’s press conference but White House officials said they were satisfied and the Labor secretary still enjoys Trump’s support.
“I think he did great. I thought he did exactly what he wanted to do. I thought he did an excellent job of laying out the facts today, so people could decide for themselves,” Mulvaney told reporters at the Capitol.
Trump has been reluctant to fire Cabinet officials and White House aides embroiled in controversy, instead preferring to see them fight back against the critics and test if they can withstand the public scrutiny.
But the Epstein case hits close to Trump, who once called the financier a “terrific guy” and socialized with him in Palm Beach, Fla. The president on Tuesday distanced himself from Epstein, saying they had a falling-out and had not spoken in about a decade.
Acosta’s press conference did little to stem the groundswell of opposition from Democrats.
A short time before he stepped to the podium, 68 House Democrats signed on to a letter to Trump calling for the Labor secretary’s ouster.
Several Democrats weighed in as Acosta fielded questions and defended his office’s work in the Epstein case, panning his performance and reiterating calls for him to step down.
“Acosta is trying to defend the indefensible,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) tweeted. “He put a monstrous predator above survivors of sexual abuse, and he’s got to go — period.”