Editor's note: On August 10, 2019, Jeffrey Epstein died in an apparent jailhouse suicide. For more information, see The Daily Beast's reporting here.
Department of Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta on Friday became the latest Trump Cabinet official to resign amid scandal after a fresh round of scrutiny of his role in a decade-old plea agreement for convicted predator Jeffrey Epstein finally caught up with him.
On Friday morning, President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that his secretary of labor had called him that morning. Trump claimed it was Acosta’s decision.
“I do not think it is right or fair to have me as the focus,” Acosta said, standing at Trump’s side, adding, “I thought the right thing was to step aside.”
The president, still showing his support, told reporters, “I said, you don’t have to do this.”
Trump went on to praise Acosta’s work at the Department of Labor, noting twice that Acosta is Hispanic and that he was educated at Harvard.
“He was a great student at Harvard, he’s Hispanic, which I so admire, because maybe it was a little tougher for him and maybe not,” Trump said. “But he did an unbelievable job as the secretary of labor. That’s what I know about him. I know one thing, he did a great job. and until this came up, there was never an ounce of problem with this very good man.”
Trump touched only briefly on the reason behind Acosta’s departure.
“I think he did a very good job [at the Wednesday press conference]... under a lot of pressure, he did a fantastic job,” Trump said. “And he explained it and he made a deal that people were happy with, and then 12 years later they’re not happy with it. You’ll have to figure all of that out.”
In a fawning resignation letter, Acosta thanked Trump for his continued support both publicly and privately.
“That support notwithstanding, I agreed to serve so that I could implement your agenda,” he wrote. “Your agenda, putting the American people first, must avoid distractions.”
“A Cabinet position is a temporary trust,” he continued. “I must set aside a part of me that wants to continue my service with the thousands of talented professionals at the Department of Labor.”
The departure came after Acosta fielded questions about his role in the Epstein case for nearly an hour on Wednesday, and just days after Trump publicly praised and expressed his confidence in his embattled labor secretary.
As The Daily Beast first reported, Epstein was arrested last weekend in New York City and charged with conspiracy and sex trafficking.
A recent series by the Miami Herald retraced the investigation into Epstein’s first case, in which the financier was accused by multiple underage girls of sexually molesting them, and revealed shocking details about how he ultimately avoided justice. After a federal investigation, a 53-page indictment was drafted but never filed; instead, Acosta, the then-U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida, signed off on a sweetheart plea deal. Rather than going to federal prison, Epstein served just 13 months of an 18-month sentence during which he was allowed to leave his jail and work from an office each day. Moreover, Acosta never informed Epstein’s 30 alleged victims of the plea agreement. In February, a federal judge ruled that omission was a violation of the law.
On Wednesday, he again defended the decision.
“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,” Acosta said.
Despite his public role in the case, only one lawmaker questioned Acosta about Epstein during the secretary’s March 2017 confirmation hearing.
“What is the reason why a deal of this kind has this specification that it... will not be made part of any public record?” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) asked.
Acosta explained that it was part of the negotiating process as his office and Epstein’s attorneys hammered out the details of the plea agreement.
Pressed again by Kaine, Acosta said the suspicion into what was in the agreement had more to do with a lack of trust in government than concern about whether Epstein was being treated differently because he is rich and powerful.
“[O]ften a very positive outcome—again, not talking about this case, but generally—a very positive outcome can become a negative outcome,” Acosta said. “Not because of a change in the underlying substance, but because by something not looking public, it is looked at with suspicion.”
Still, for the majority of his time at the Department of Labor he flew under the radar, rarely raising the ire of Congress or the president. Behind the scenes, Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was unhappy with the pace and aggressiveness by which Acosta was handling deregulation.
In some cases, his cuts to the department were thwarted by Congress.
In fact, Acosta tried three times to cut a program dedicated to combating human trafficking, along with child and forced labor, by 80 percent.
“Those grants have been removed, as have other grants for foreign countries,” he said during a press conference Wednesday, adding that Congress quickly added them back into the budget. “This is what happens in Washington, and I fully suspect those grants will remain in this year.”
Acosta was Trump’s second choice for labor secretary. The president’s first choice, fast-food executive Andy Puzder, withdrew his nomination after a series of scandals in his personal and professional life made his confirmation unlikely.
Despite the president’s show of support, the knives had been out for Acosta for months.
Starting in at least late February, several top aides and advisers had repeatedly recommended to Trump that he dump Acosta, in part due to fallout from the Miami Herald investigative series, according to a senior administration official and another source with knowledge of these conversations. For a while, the president and Acosta stuck to their guns. Until suddenly, on Friday, they didn’t.
“The administration should have gotten rid of Acosta after the original Miami Herald story,” said one former Trump administration official. “Even if he did nothing technically illegal, the optics of the plea deal are awful. To give a monster like Epstein such a friendly deal should disqualify Acosta from ever holding another job in the public sector again.”