In the wake of the arrest of financier Jeffrey Epstein on sex-trafficking charges, Democratic leaders are calling for the resignation of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who as a prosecutor negotiated a plea deal that resulted in an exceptionally light sentence for Epstein on similar charges a decade ago.
“I am calling on Secretary Acosta to resign,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on the Senate floor Tuesday morning, a day after the former hedge fund manager was formally charged. “It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta’s ability to lead the Department of Labor. If he refuses to resign, President Trump should fire him. Instead of prosecuting a predator and serial sex trafficker of children, Acosta chose to let him off easy. This is not acceptable.”
Schumer, who voted against Acosta’s April 2017 confirmation, also called on the Department of Justice to release the findings of its investigation into the 2008 plea deal. Late Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on Acosta to resign because “he engaged in an unconscionable agreement” that was “kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice.”
Epstein was charged by federal prosecutors in Florida in 2007 for, as the Miami Herald put it in its award-winning reporting on the case, “assembling a large, cult-like network of underage girls — with the help of young female recruiters — to coerce into having sex acts behind the walls of his opulent waterfront mansion as often as three times a day.” He received what observers consider unusually lenient treatment by Acosta, at that time the U.S. attorney in Miami.
There have been mounting calls for his resignation or firing since the Herald’s series appeared last year.
“The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence,” wrote Acosta 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.”
Epstein pleaded not guilty Monday to charges brought in the Southern District of New York alleging that he sexually abused and exploited dozens of minor girls between 2002 and 2005.
In February, a federal judge ruled that Acosta’s office broke the law by failing to notify Epstein’s victims of the plea deal. Epstein pleaded guilty to two prostitution charges in state court and in exchange received federal immunity both for himself and “any potential co-conspirators.” The potential co-conspirators were not identified in the agreement. The billionaire served only 13 months in the private wing of a Palm Beach County, Fla., jail and was allowed to come and go from the facility for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, on work release. After his release, while on probation, he took numerous trips on his private jet.
The White House stood behind Acosta.
“It’s classic [of Pelosi] and her Democratic Party to not focus on the perpetrator at hand and instead to focus on a member of the Trump administration,” said Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway Tuesday morning. “They’re so obsessed with this president that they immediately go to Alex Acosta.”
Acosta, she said, is “doing a great job” to boost the economy.
Epstein was a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, and the two have socialized over the years.
“I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,” said Trump in a 2002 New York magazine profile of Epstein. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
Trump said Tuesday that he wasn’t a fan of Epstein, had a falling out with him a long time ago and hadn’t spoken to him in 15 years. He also expressed support for Acosta, complimenting his work in the cabinet.
“I feel very badly, actually, for Secretary Acosta because I’ve known him as somebody who works so hard and has done such a good job,” said Trump on Tuesday. “I feel very badly about that whole situation but we’re going to be looking at that and looking at that very closely.”
A lawyer for Trump denied any connection between the president and Epstein, and Conway said the two haven’t spoken in “10 or 15 years.” Former President Bill Clinton also was in Epstein’s circle after leaving the White House, flying on Epstein’s jet dozens of times to various destinations, according to a 2015 article in Gawker, which cited official logs for the flights. Clinton’s office released a statement Monday saying there were only around four such trips, and that the president was accompanied by aides and security agents at all times.
In all, 38 Democrats voted against confirming Acosta, including all seven senators who are currently running in the presidential primary. Every Republican voted yes save for Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who missed the vote along with Democrat Gary Peters of Michigan.
“Since when do underage girl sex ring traffickers get to go to their office every day while they serve their time?” asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Tuesday morning via Twitter. “The victims should have had a say. That’s what the law says. I didn’t vote for former Florida U.S. Attorney Acosta to begin with and he should step down.”
Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren called for Acosta to step down on Tuesday morning, along with former Vice President Joe Biden, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., raised concerns about Acosta’s deal with Epstein during his confirmation hearing. Acosta said at the time that “professionals within a prosecutor’s office” decided on the deal. In April, Kaine and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sent a letter to the DOJ requesting the results of its investigation into whether Acosta was guilty of “professional misconduct” during the Epstein prosecution. Kaine and Murray both voted against Acosta and have called on him to step down.
Acosta was confronted by two House Democrats in an April hearing, when he again defended the deal.
“I understand the frustration,” said Acosta. “I think it’s important for people to know [Epstein] was going to get off with no jail time or restitution. It was the work of our office that resulted in him going to jail. It was the work of our office that resulted in him having to register as a sex offender.”
Senate Republicans and some Senate Democrats who voted for Acosta have supported the Labor secretary.
“This was up about three months ago, and then all of the sudden it died down, so I don’t know how big of a deal it is,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
“If he made a mistake or a judgment call or something like that, does that affect the way he’s doing his job now? I’m going to basically judge him on what job he’s doing and how he’s doing it,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who voted to confirm Acosta. As far as calls to resign, he said: “I’m not getting into that feeding frenzy.”
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