President Donald Trump, left, and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta listen during a meeting of the President's National Council of the American Worker in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Sept. 17, 2018. The arrest of billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein on child sex trafficking charges is raising new questions about the future of Acosta as well as Epstein’s relationships with several major political figures, including President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton. Credit: Evan Vucci | AP

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump praised his labor secretary and on Tuesday said he felt “very badly” for him as a Maine senator all but joined Democratic calls for Alexander Acosta to resign over his handling, as a U.S. attorney, of an earlier sex-crimes case involving the billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein.

Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump also said the White House would look closely at the circumstances surrounding a 2007 plea deal overseen by Acosta that a growing number of Democrats argued Tuesday was far too lenient on Epstein.

“I feel very badly, actually, for Secretary Acosta because I’ve known him as being somebody who works so hard and has done such a good job,” Trump said of Acosta’s tenure as labor secretary. “I feel very badly about that whole situation, but we’re going to be looking at that, and looking at it very closely.”

Shortly beforehand, Acosta said in a tweet that he was pleased that federal prosecutors in New York are pursing a new sex-trafficking case against Epstein involving minors.

That followed calls for him to resign by lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, as well as several Democratic presidential candidates, all of whom argued that he mishandled the earlier case as a U.S. attorney.

The plea deal came while Acosta was a U.S. attorney in Florida. At the time, he opted not to prosecute Epstein on federal sex trafficking charges but agreed to lesser counts. Victims were not informed of the deal, which a federal judge said in February violated a victims’ rights law.

Maine’s two senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats, voted in 2017 to confirm Acosta. In a Tuesday statement, King said “barring a compelling explanation from Secretary Acosta, I don’t see how he can continue to lead the department.”

Collins said in a statement she did not understand why victims were not notified of the settlement and a U.S. Department of Justice watchdog office “should look into the circumstances surrounding the earlier agreement immediately. That office committed to reviewing it in February.

During a floor speech Tuesday morning, Schumer said Trump should fire Acosta if he does not voluntarily step down after Monday’s indictment of Epstein, which has renewed scrutiny of a plea deal that led to two felony solicitation charges and 13 months in county jail for Epstein at a time when he had been facing the possibility of life in prison.

“It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta’s ability to lead the Department of Labor,” Schumer said. “We cannot have as one of the leading appointed officials in America someone who has done this, plain and simple.”

In a 2002 magazine interview, Trump called Epstein a “terrific guy” and said he “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” Schumer noted that Epstein had appeared in the past at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach.

Trump told reporters that he knew Epstein from Palm Beach but that the two “had a falling out” about 15 years ago. Trump did not elaborate on what happened, saying “I was not a fan of his” while lavishing praise on Acosta.

“I can tell you that for two and a half years, he’s been just an excellent secretary of labor,” Trump said. “That fact is, he’s been a very good secretary of labor.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, called the accusations against Epstein “horrendous” and said he was glad “they are being pursued further,” but he said it was up to Trump to decide whether to retain Acosta as labor secretary.

BDN writer Michael Shepherd and the Washington Post writers Mike DeBonis, Seung Min Kim and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.