Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is stepping down from his post, just two days after he held a news conference to defend a plea deal that he brokered for wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein while serving as a U.S. attorney in Florida more than a decade ago.
President Donald Trump alerted reporters this morning of Acosta’s departure. “This was him, not me,” said Trump as Acosta stood beside him.
Trump, who saw Acosta largely as a source of favorable monthly statistics about unemployment and job growth, called Acosta “a great labor secretary not a good one” and “a tremendous talent. He’s a Hispanic man, he went to Harvard, a great student.” Trump indicated that he was satisfied with Acosta’s explanation for the plea deal in Wednesday’s news conference, saying, “He explained it.”
But Acosta has had a rocky relationship in recent months with other White House officials, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, over the perceived slow pace of deregulation at the department. And one person familiar with the situation said that although Trump initially thought Acosta handled the Epstein controversy well, over the last couple of days the president saw the negative press and didn’t like it.
“POTUS is not a fan of bad press, especially when other people make him look bad,” this person said.
Acosta, a 50-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer, came newly under fire for the lenient 2008 plea deal after Epstein was re-arrested July 6 in New York City and charged with sex trafficking. Under the earlier plea agreement, Epstein served only 13 months of an 18-month term and was permitted daily furloughs to go to the office. Epstein also was required to register as a sex offender and to pay restitution to his underage victims.
At the White House this morning, Acosta told reporters: “Over the last week I’ve seen a lot of coverage of the department of labor. And what I have not seen is the incredible job creation that we’ve seen in this economy. more than 5 million jobs, I haven’t seen that…. I do not think it is right and fair for this administration’s labor department to have Epstein as the focus, rather than the incredible economy that we have today.”
It’s an ignominious end for a son of middle-class Cuban immigrants who climbed his way up and made a name for himself in conservative social circles. Acosta led his resignation letter with mention of his parents and their desire to secure “the best opportunities for their son and grandchildren.”
“He’s been careful for his whole life, going to the right schools and connecting to the right people,” said a former administration official. “And now he’s just going to be remembered for Jeffrey Epstein.”
Things began to unravel for Acosta in November, when the Miami Herald published a lengthy reexamination of the case, and accelerated in February, when a district court judge ruled that the 2008 plea deal violated the Crime Victims Rights Act because Acosta never revealed the terms of the deal to Epstein’s victims before it was finalized. Also in February, the Justice Department opened an investigation into whether Acosta’s prosecution team committed professional misconduct in its handling the Epstein case.
Key details of Acosta’s plea agreement with Epstein were known to senators at the time Acosta was confirmed as labor secretary, though initially these seemed minor compared to domestic abuse allegations against Trump’s first pick for labor secretary, Andy Puzder. Acosta defended his actions at a congressional hearing this past April, saying he entered the case only after a state grand jury recommended that only one charge be filed against Epstein — a course of action that would have resulted in no jail time for Epstein, no restitution to victims, and no registration as a sex offender.
“At the end of the day Mr. Epstein went to jail,” Acosta said. “Mr. Epstein was incarcerated, he registered as a sex offender, the world was put on notice that he was a sex offender, and the victims received restitution.“
Acosta has suggested that he and his attorneys were worn down by Epstein’s all-star legal team, which included Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who investigated the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s. Among other tactics, the Epstein lawyers investigated the prosecutors looking for “personal pecadillos,” Acosta wrote in 2011 to journalist Conchita Sarnoff, whose 2016 book “TrafficKing” chronicled the Epstein prosecution. Acosta called these efforts “a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors.”
Acosta has also said that the full extent of Epstein’s alleged abuse wasn’t known at the time he struck the plea deal.
“Had these additional statements and evidence been known,” he wrote in a letter Sarnoff, “the outcome may have been different.”
Epstein aside, Acosta‘s relationships in the White House wore thin in recent months. Known for his careful demeanor, Acosta was privately accused by White House officials of slow-walking deregulatory efforts, such as business-friendly policies on overtime pay and shielding franchised companies from legal liabilities.
It took two years for DOL to issue a regulation outlining a program for privately led apprenticeships, a delay that irked the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump. A former DOL official told POLITICO in June that she was “fed up” with Acosta.
Mulvaney curtailed Acosta’s rule-making authority shortly after taking office in January, requiring three White House aides to sit in on all the agency’s regulatory meetings. Then in May, the White House took the unusual step of ordering Acosta to fire his chief of staff, Nick Geale, after an internal review concluded that Geale’s interactions with employees — including frequent profanity-laced tirades — were damaging morale inside the agency.
Even as White House aides abandoned Acosta, the president himself remained content, in large part because of the favorable monthly employment statistics typically reported by DOL. Acosta went out of his way to praise the strength of the economy on social media, often mentioning the president by name.
“I feel very badly, actually, for Secretary Acosta,“ Trump said July 9. “I’ve known him as somebody that works so hard and does such a good job. I feel very badly about that whole situation.”
This article was originally published by Politico on July 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Ian Kullgren is a reporter on POLITICO’s employment and immigration team. Before joining POLITICO, he was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. and was part of a team that covered a 41-day standoff with armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts earned the Associated Press Media Editors grand prize for news reporting in 2017. His real beat was politics, though, and he spent most his time at the state capitol covering the governor and state legislature.
He is a native of the mitten state and graduated from Michigan State University, where he ditched most of his classes to work on The State News, the student newspaper. He’s a big fan of mountains, for hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter.
About the Author: Eliana Johnson is a White House correspondent at POLITICO. She previously served as Washington editor of National Review, where she led the organization’s 2016 election coverage. She has worked as a producer at the Fox News Channel, as a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, and as a staff reporter for the New York Sun, where she covered higher education. She graduated from Yale College in 2006 with a degree in History.
About the Author: Anita Kumar serves as White House correspondent and associate editor, covering President Donald Trump and helping organize and guide coverage for POLITICO’s White House team.
Kumar joined POLITICO in 2019 after covering the White House for McClatchy’s chain of newspapers for six years. She reported on Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016 and Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.
Prior to that, she worked at the Washington Post, writing about Virginia politics, and the Tampa Bay Times, writing about local, state and federal government both in Florida and Washington. She started her career at the News & Advance in Lynchburg, Va. and worked briefly at the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C.
A native Virginian, Kumar grew up in Charlottesville and attended the University of Virginia.
Kumar was elected to the White House Correspondents’ Association board in July 2018 for a three-year term. She appears regularly on television and radio.