Labor Secretary Alex Acosta vigorously defended his handling of a 2008 plea deal with billionaire Jeffrey Epstein on Wednesday, saying “facts are being overlooked” as critics question whether he was too lenient as Epstein faced allegations he sexually abused underage girls.
In a news conference, the embattled official said he welcomed new charges against Epstein from New York prosecutors and said abuse victims’ statements are handled differently now.
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“Without the work of our prosecutors Epstein would have gotten away with just that state charge,” Acosta said of his brokering the 2008 plea agreement that resulted in Epstein serving just 13 months behind bars. “Now many today question the terms of that ultimatum, what’s called a non-prosecution agreement. A good prosecutor will tell you these cases are complex. Especially when they involve children. And even more so in 2006.”
He defended the leniency of the agreement, asserting that to bring Epstein to trial would have amounted to a “roll of the dice.”
“The goal here was straightforward: Put Epstein behind bars, ensure he registered as a sexual offender, provide victims with the means to seek restitution, and protect the public by putting them on notice that a sexual predator was in their midst,” he argued.
The press-shy Labor secretary has stayed mostly silent in recent days as federal prosecutors in New York filed new charges against Epstein for allegedly sexually abusing underage girls.
His forceful defense amounted to a “Kavanaugh 2.0″ rebuttal in an effort to impress President Donald Trump, according to a former administration official familiar with the matter. The strategy is also an effort to push back against acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and other White House officials who believe he hasn’t moved swiftly enough on deregulation.
“Acosta’s usual strategy with terrible press is to just stay quiet,” the official said. “This shows just how desperate he is becoming to save his job.”
Trump encouraged Acosta to hold the news conference, according to a person familiar with the matter, who added that the president “wants to get the truth out.”
Acosta’s appearance comes the same day that House Oversight Democrats asked Acosta to appear before the committee on July 23. In a letter, Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) told Acosta his testimony is “even more critical” given the new indictment in New York. Hours before, a new accuser had come forward alleging Epstein raped her in his Manhattan apartment in 2002.
This week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on Acosta to step down.
“It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta’s ability to lead the Department of Labor,” Schumer said Tuesday in a speech on the Senate floor. “If he refuses to resign, President Trump should fire him.”
Acosta said on Tuesday that he supported the New York prosecutors’ decision even as he defended the earlier plea agreement. He has argued that the Epstein case was handed to him after a state grand jury recommended an even lesser charge, and has said the decision to grant Epstein daily furloughs to his office was made after the plea deal by the state of Florida.
“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,” Acosta tweeted. “Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”
Senate Republican leaders said they were unaware of any new movement on Acosta ahead of the news conference, and while they continued to stick with the embattled secretary, they also deferred to Trump on his future.
“That’s entirely up to the president,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
Burgess Everett and Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.