WASHINGTON — Adding to the lengthy list of departures from President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said Friday he’s stepping down amid the tumult over his handling of a 2008 secret plea deal with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein, who is accused of sexually abusing underage girls.
Trump, with Acosta at his side, said Friday he did not ask his secretary to leave and “I hate to see this happen.” The president, who publicly faults the news media almost daily, said Acosta put the blame there, too.
Acosta “informed me this morning that he felt the constant drumbeat of press about a prosecution which took place under his watch more than 12 years ago was bad for the Administration, which he so strongly believes in, and he graciously tendered his resignation,” Trump tweeted later in the day.
Trump said Patrick Pizzella, deputy secretary since April 2018, would succeed Acosta on an acting basis.
Pizzella served in the administrations of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama. A coalition of civil rights, human rights, labour and other groups opposed his nomination by Trump to the department’s No. 2 slot, citing Pizzella’s record on labour rights.
Acosta was the U.S. attorney in Miami when he oversaw a 2008 non-prosecution agreement that allowed Epstein to avoid federal trial but plead guilty to state charges and serve 13 months in jail. Similar charges filed against Epstein by federal prosecutors in New York this week had put Acosta’s handling of the 2008 agreement with the now-jailed financier back in the spotlight.
Years ago, Epstein had counted Trump and former President Bill Clinton among his friends, but Trump said this week he was “not a fan.”
Acosta said he didn’t want his involvement in Epstein’s case to overshadow the president’s agenda and said his resignation would be effective next week.
“My point here today is we have an amazing economy, and the focus needs to be on the economy,” he said.
Top Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates had demanded that Acosta resign. But Acosta had defended his actions, insisting at a news conference Wednesday that he got the toughest deal on Epstein that he could at the time.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said he should never have been appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Senate. “Thank God he’s gone,” she said
Acosta had also frustrated some conservatives who wanted him gone long before the Epstein uproar. Among their objections were his decisions to proceed with several employment discrimination lawsuits and to allow certain Obama administration holdovers to keep their jobs.
His resignation extends record turnover at the highest levels of Trump’s administration, with acting secretaries at key departments, including the Pentagon and Homeland Security. Roughly two-thirds of the Cabinet has turned over by the two-and-a-half year mark of Trump’s term.
Only the departments of Treasury, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Energy, Commerce and Agriculture continue with the leaders that were first confirmed.
The high rate of turnover also extends to the White House, where 76% of those given the title of “assistant to the president” in Trump’s first year had left by the beginning of July 2019, according to Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project. The percentages were substantially lower under Obama (61, Bush (50%) and Clinton (42%), according to Kumar’s research.
Epstein, 66, reached the plea deal in Florida in 2008 to secretly end a federal sex abuse investigation involving at least 40 teenage girls that could have landed him behind bars for life. He instead pleaded guilty to Florida state charges, spent 13 months in jail, paid settlements to victims and registered as a sex offender.
A federal judge has said Acosta violated federal law by keeping Epstein’s victims in the dark about the plea arrangement, and the Justice Department has been investigating. The deal came under scrutiny earlier this year after reporting by The Miami Herald.
Trump had defended Acosta earlier this week while saying he’d look “very closely” at his handling of the 2008 agreement.
Acosta had attempted to clear his name and held a news conference — encouraged by Trump — to defend his actions. In a 50-plus-minute lawyerly rebuttal, he argued his office had secured the best deal it could and had worked in the best interests of Epstein’s victims.
“We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” he said.
Pressed on whether he had any regrets, Acosta repeatedly said circumstances had changed since then.
“We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a very different world,” he said. “Today’s world treats victims very, very differently.”
After federal attorneys in New York announced the new charges against Epstein this week, Acosta tweeted that he was pleased by their decision.
“The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific,” 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.”
Acosta took office as the nation’s 27th labour secretary in early 2017, leading a sprawling agency that enforces more than 180 federal laws covering about 10 million employers and 125 million workers. The department also plays a role in combatting human trafficking.
Before he was named a U.S. attorney, Acosta was an assistant attorney general for the civil rights division in President George W. Bush’s first term. Before joining the Trump administration, he was dean of the Florida International University law school.