WASHINGTON — Insisting he got the best deal he could at the time, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on Wednesday defended his handling of a sex-trafficking case involving now-jailed financier Jeffrey Epstein as Acosta tried to stave off intensifying Democratic calls for his resignation.
"We believe that we proceeded appropriately," Acosta told reporters at a news conference at Labor Department headquarters, where he retraced steps federal prosecutors took in the case a decade ago when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. Acosta said state authorities had planned to go after Epstein with charges that would have resulted in no jail time until his office intervened and pressed for tougher consequences.
"We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail," he said. "That was the focus." He added: "Facts are important and facts are being overlooked."
Acosta is being assailed for his part in the secret 2008 plea deal he signed that let Epstein avoid federal prosecution on charges that he molested teenage girls. But he was unapologetic Wednesday as he declared his office did the best it could under the circumstances.
The deal Acosta helped broker has come under new and intense scrutiny after prosecutors in New York on Monday brought new child sex-trafficking charges alleging Epstein abused dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s, paying them hundreds of dollars in cash for massages, then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York. Epstein has pleaded not guilty to the charges; if convicted he could be imprisoned for the rest of his life.
Acosta said he welcomed the new case, calling Epstein's acts "despicable." Earlier he defended himself on Twitter, crediting "new evidence and additional testimony" uncovered by prosecutors in New York for providing "an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice."
Acosta has long made the case that it was better to use the threat of a federal indictment to force Epstein into a state guilty plea, with restitution to victims and registration as a sex offender, than it would have been to "roll the dice" and take Epstein to trial. But the result, to critics, was egregiously lenient.
Acosta's office had gotten to the point of drafting an indictment that could have sent Epstein to federal prison for life. But it was never filed, leading to Epstein's guilty plea to two state prostitution-related charges. Epstein served 13 months in a work-release program. He was also required to make payments to victims and register as a sex offender.
Pressed on whether he had regrets, Acosta repeatedly suggested that circumstances had changed in the years since the plea.
"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."
Trump has, so far, also defended Acosta, praising his work as labor secretary and saying he felt "very badly" for him "because I've known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job." Still, he said, he would be looking at the circumstances of the case "very closely."
Though Trump may have made the tagline "You're fired!" famous on his reality show "The Apprentice," he has shown a pattern of reluctance to fire even his most embattled aides. Trump, for instance, took months to dismiss Scott Pruitt as Environmental Protection Agency administrator despite a dizzying array of scandals, and allowed Jeff Sessions to remain as attorney general for more than a year even as he railed at and belittled him.
Trump typically gives his Cabinet secretaries the opportunity to defend themselves publicly in interviews and press conferences before deciding whether to pull the plug. And he encouraged Acosta to hold a press conference laying out his thinking and involvement in the plea deal, according to a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Acosta said the attention hadn't changed his relationship with Trump, insisting it was "outstanding."
Trump, who had once praised Epstein as "a terrific guy," dissociated himself Tuesday from the wealthy hedge fund manager now charged with abusing minors, saying the two had a falling out 15 or so years ago and hadn't spoken since.
Democratic presidential contenders and party leaders want Acosta to resign or be fired over the 2008 deal that has struck many prosecutors as unusually lenient.
Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Jamie Raskin sent Acosta a letter Wednesday inviting him to testify July 23. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, welcomed that move, saying Acosta "has a disturbing record on sexual and human trafficking that stretches from the horribly permissive plea agreement he gave to Jeffrey Epstein, up to his time now as Labor Secretary."
Many Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have taken a wait-and-see approach. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said Tuesday that Acosta should hold a news conference to explain why he'd agreed to the plea bargain and answer all questions.
"Anybody who would look at this, just based on what's been reported, would have questions," Kennedy said. "That doesn't mean necessarily that there aren't answers." The Labor Department said Acosta planned to take questions as well as make a statement.