‘The next 72 hours are critical for Acosta’ – POLITICO
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, concerned that the recent burst of negative publicity could harm him beyond repair, according to four people familiar with the situation.
“The next 72 hours are critical for Acosta,” said 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.”
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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 the president says have been falsely made against him and his most recent nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, according to the people.
Trump isn‘t likely to fire Acosta unless he remains a constant in the news, leading to more outrage by those who think Epstein, a billionaire who counts Trump and former President Bill Clinton as friends, was given a lenient sentence for his crimes. Some people have called for his resignation, but many Democrats and their allies, including the AFL-CIO, have stayed relatively quiet because they see Acosta’s tepid approach to deregulation as tolerable.
“The way to stay in this administration is to stay under the radar, out of the news and be quiet,” said a second former Trump adviser, who remains close to the White House. “POTUS won’t like it if it lingers.”
White House officials, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and business groups had soured on Acosta 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.
And Trump has been pleased with his labor secretary in part because Acosta rarely misses an opportunity to praise the strength of Trump’s economy, according to two people familiar with the situation.
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 on Monday.
The White House did not answer questions Monday about whether Trump retained that confidence in Acosta, who faces some fresh 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, who was arrested over 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.
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.
At that time, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House was reviewing Acosta’s role. “My understanding is that’s a very complicated case … but that they made the best possible decision and deal they could have gotten at that time,” she said.
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.
A Republican close to Acosta said Department of Justice ethics rules prohibit him from actively defending himself. But Acosta previously told lawmakers that 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.”
When asked whether Acosta would have cut the same deal with Epstein knowing what he knows today, a person close to Acosta who talks to him regularly said: “Hindsight is 20-20. There’s every reason to believe that the entire office did everything they could with the information they had at the time.”
But the person acknowledged that it was “fair” to say that what appeared to be Acosta’s sweetheart deal for someone with Epstein’s reputation looked bad. Still, the allegations haven’t hurt his ability to focus on Department of Labor priorities, the person said.
“I know he is 100 percent focused on implementing the president’s agenda of expanding economic opportunity for Americans and protecting American jobs from unfair competition like China,” the person said.
Acosta had been keeping a low profile, but more recently he has been playing a more public role, attending the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in June and appearing at Trump’s speech on the Fourth of July, the day before news broke about the latest Epstein charges. That same day he was spotted at the Clark Hill law firm’s fireworks-watching party from the rooftop.
Details of the case were known when Acosta was confirmed as secretary in April 2017, but an extensive report by the Miami Herald in November 2018 containing new interviews with Epstein’s victims brought renewed attention to the case.
A dozen House members asked Attorney General William Barr to reopen Epstein’s case and to make public the findings of an investigation into whether Acosta committed professional misconduct by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility. Acosta has previously said he is cooperating with the department inquiry.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla) on Monday called again for Acosta to resign. “Someone with such poor judgment and utter disregard for survivors should not be our Secretary of Labor,” she said.
A former administration official said: “This is clearly bad, and I think it’s going to get worse through the election. Epstein is going to be going to prison for decades and decades and it’s going to make the secretary look even more pathetic.”
The negative attention may have already cost him a job. Acosta had been lobbying for a nomination to a judgeship on the 11th Circuit Court in Florida but it never came, a former White House official said.
“Acosta’s days are numbered,” said one Republican close to the White House. “I don’t see how, given the world we live in and with all of this new information coming out today, that he won’t need to resign to ‘spend more time with his family.’”
Nancy Cook and Ian Kullgren contributed to this report.