White House officials are closely watching the coverage of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta’s past involvement as a prosecutor in billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s plea deal in 2008, acutely aware that negative publicity could harm him beyond repair, according to four people familiar with the situation.
“The next 72 hours are critical for Acosta,” according to a former Trump adviser, who remains close to the White House. “This is a settled matter for people in the White House….but it’s usually the response that kills you.”
Story Continued Below
So far, the expectation in the West Wing is that President Donald Trump is likely to give Acosta the benefit of the doubt because of the allegations of assault by women that he says have been falsely made against him and his most recent nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, according to the people. Also, Epstein’s circle of friends included Trump and former President Bill Clinton, complicating the situation for Trump.
But Acosta also has a compromised standing in the administration. Acosta faced the wrath of White House officials and business groups in recent months because of the slow pace of regulations being implemented by his department on issues such as overtime pay. But more recently, Acosta has pushed through the regulations, quieting some of the complaints.
In February, after a judge ruled that Acosta and other federal prosecutors acted unlawfully by failing to keep Epstein’s underage female victims informed about his plea deal, Trump expressed confidence in Acosta, calling him a “fantastic labor secretary.” On Sunday, the president said he didn’t know anything about the new charges against Epstein, which were outlined in New York Monday.
The White House did not answer questions Monday about whether Trump retained that confidence in Acosta, who faces new demands for his resignation, or whether it followed through on a previously announced plan to investigate the allegations against him.
“We’d really have to see that he’d cut a deal that was improper, not unsavory, but improper, that for some reason he was protecting himself or he was given money, those burdens are very high and that deal was 13 years ago,” a senior administration official said.
Epstein, a well-connected billionaire who was arrested this weekend, is accused of abusing young women, some as young as 14, in New York and Florida. Federal prosecutors say he paid victims to recruit other underage girls as part of a ‘“network and operation enabling him to sexually exploit and abuse dozens of underage girls.”
New unsealed documents in the New York case could show the extent to which Acosta was not forthcoming about Epstein’s crimes, according to a former administration official.
A Republican close to Acosta said Department of Justice ethics rules prohibit him from actively defending himself. But Acosta previously said he was not personally responsible for Epstein’s light sentence.
“I’ve been on record as condemning the terms of his incarceration,” Acosta said on Capitol Hill in April 2019. “I understand why folks are upset. That was Florida law, that was not a federal decision.”
In February, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Marra ruled that federal prosecutors violated the Crime Victims Rights Act by failing to keep Epstein’s victims adequately informed about a previous plea deal in Florida.
Epstein faced an 18-month sentence after hiring people to find girls to visit his home in Palm Beach for “massages,” which would often involve sex acts. He was released five months early and was allowed to leave for work-release during the day.
The Justice Department’s internal watchdog for attorney misconduct, the Office of Professional Responsibility, opened an investigation into the government’s conduct in the case.
Despite key details of the case being known when Acosta was confirmed as labor secretary, an extensive report by the Miami Herald in November 2018 with new interviews with Epstein’s victims brought fresh attention to the case and prompted Democratic lawmakers to demand an investigation.
“This is clearly bad, and I think it’s going to get worse through the election,” said a former administration official. “Epstein is going to be going to prison for decades and decades and it’s going to make the secretary look even more pathetic.”
Ian Kullgren contributed to this report.