Alexander Acosta's job security took a hit Tuesday after President Trump offered a muted defense of the embattled Labor secretary and as GOP senators criticized his involvement in a plea deal for a wealthy financier accused of sex trafficking.
Republican senators predict Acosta will eventually have to resign over what they say appears to have been a “sweetheart deal” 11 years ago for Jeffrey Epstein, a billionaire who counted President Trump and former President Clinton in his circle of acquaintances.
“It’s up to the president, but he’ll probably have to resign just so the Democrats stop hammering,” said a GOP senator who praised Acosta’s tenure as Labor secretary and described him as a “good communicator” who is attentive to labor issues in lawmakers’ home states.
Acosta was the U.S. attorney in charge of Epstein’s case in Florida more than a decade ago when Epstein pleaded guilty to charges of soliciting prostitution. The guilty plea resolved multiple allegations that Epstein had molested underage girls.
He served only 13 months in prison and was allowed to leave regularly to work a day job. He did not face federal charges.
The Republican senator said the optics of going easy on someone in Epstein’s situation are terrible and would likely outweigh Acosta’s explanation to GOP lawmakers during his confirmation proceedings in 2017 that he took the best deal he could get to punish Epstein.
A second GOP senator also predicted that Acosta would come under pressure to submit his resignation, while a third Republican senator who also requested anonymity said, “Obviously, it’s not a good situation,” adding that colleagues would likely “let it play out to see what happens.”
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, set the tone in a Fox News interview Monday in which he called Epstein’s sentence “pathetic.”
“The guy victimized dozens, probably scores, of little girls and the sentence he got was pathetic. And every mom and dad in America — frankly, not just moms and dads, but anybody with a heart should be heartbroken by what happened to those girls, to those victims but also with the absurdity of a sentence that short,” he said on “The Story with Martha MacCallum.”
The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is reviewing the plea deal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered no defense of Acosta when asked about his future during a Tuesday afternoon press conference, saying his fate rests entirely with Trump.
"There's no question that the accusations against Epstein are horrendous and I think it's good news that they're being pursued further,” McConnell said, referring to the new charges against Epstein unveiled in New York on Monday.
“As to Secretary Acosta's continued service, he serves at the pleasure of the president and I'm inclined to defer the president to make that decision," McConnell added.
Other Republican senators said reports that prosecutors failed at the time to notify victims of the deal with Epstein is a red flag.
“The allegations are so horrendous and the conduct so reprehensible that standard practice would be that the victims would be notified of a plea agreement, so that, to me, is a big question,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Collins also said the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility “should take a look at the case and whether or not it was properly handled.”
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said “every one of those victims needs to be notified, and we got to find out why they weren’t notified in the process.”
Trump, meanwhile, offered less than a full-throated defense of his Labor secretary.
He said he would look “very carefully” at the plea deal, adding that he felt "very badly" for him.
“I can tell you that for 2 1/2 years he has been just an excellent secretary of Labor,” Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with the emir of Qatar. “He’s done just a fantastic job.”
Trump stressed that Acosta was not the only prosecutor working on the case and suggested that all judges and Justice Department attorneys may rethink their past decisions from 10 to 20 years ago.
“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,” Trump said. “I feel very badly about that whole situation. But we’re going to be looking at that and looking at it very closely.”
Other Republicans say Acosta is a political liability for Trump because the secretary further links him to Epstein, who Trump socialized with years ago in Palm Beach, Fla.
Trump and his allies played defense on Tuesday by minimizing his past interactions with Epstein.
“I knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him,” the president acknowledged Tuesday during comments to reporters in the Oval Office.
But Trump also said, “I had a falling out with him a long time ago,” adding, “I don’t think I’ve spoken to him for 15 years. I wasn’t a fan.”
Trump has in the past stuck by Cabinet officials and nominees through controversy until the situation became untenable, as was the case with former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and recent Federal Reserve picks Stephen Moore and Herman Cain.
Some White House officials have reportedly been frustrated with Acosta's slow-walking the administration's deregulatory agenda, and his stature in the White House could quickly shift if new evidence emerges in the Epstein case or the Department of Justice's internal review of the 2008 plea deal, or if Republicans begin to call for his ouster.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway on Tuesday repeatedly deflected questions about whether Acosta has Trump's confidence, and instead accused Democrats of focusing their attention on Acosta rather than on the “unconscionable” allegations against Epstein.
"It’s classic [Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)] and her Democratic Party to not focus on the perpetrator at hand and instead to focus on a member of the Trump administration," Conway told reporters. "They’re so obsessed with this president that they immediately go to Alex Acosta."
Acosta explained two years ago when the plea deal first came under scrutiny on Capitol Hill that he didn’t believe he could otherwise secure a sentence requiring jail time and for Epstein to register as a sex offender.
GOP senators were aware of the plea agreement when they voted unanimously to confirm him in April 2017, but now privately say the politics of the situation have changed since Monday when federal prosecutors unsealed new charges against Epstein.
He is charged with having sexual relations with girls as young as 14, paying dozens of underage women for intimate acts and urging them to recruit other young women to be exploited. Federal authorities said they seized a cache of pornographic photos of teenage girls from Epstein’s Manhattan mansion.
Epstein has pleaded not guilty to the new charges.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said the 2008 plea deal “seems egregious from what we know.”
“When you look at what’s public about what he was accused of, what the plea agreement does, it just seems like it didn’t quite fit. It seems like he got off pretty easy,” he said of the deal between Acosta and Epstein.
Some Republicans said the Senate Judiciary Committee should investigate Acosta’s deal with Epstein to determine whether it was justified by the evidence.
“I’d like to dig in a little bit deeper and see what we can get, but through the committee. I think Lindsey is committed to that,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), referring to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Graham on Tuesday said he’s open to conducting an investigation if more evidence emerges to raise doubts about the plea deal.
“If this plea deal doesn’t withstand scrutiny then it would be job of the Judiciary Committee to find out how it got off the rails. What kind of checks and balances do we have to make sure that complaints involving minor children are adequately investigated? This is an area of the law where the tie goes to the kids,” Graham told reporters.
“If we think somebody’s out there abusing children, no matter how hard the case may be, you want to bring it forward simply to get these people deterred if nothing else,” he added.