WASHINGTON – Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned Friday amid intense scrutiny of his role as a U.S. attorney a decade ago in a deal with Jeffrey Epstein that allowed the financier to plead guilty to lesser offenses in a sex-crimes case.
President Donald Trump told reporters Friday morning that Acosta had decided to step aside. He called Acosta a “great labor secretary, not a good one” and a “tremendous talent.”
“This was him, not me,” Trump said of the resignation decision, as Acosta stood by his side. “I said to Alex, you don’t have to do this.”
Acosta, the only Hispanic in Trump’s Cabinet, said he had submitted his resignation to take effect in a week.
“I don’t think it’s right or fair to have this administration’s labor department have Epstein be the focus instead of the incredible economy we have today,” Acosta said. “It would be selfish for me to stay in the position and continue talking about a case that is 12 years old.”
Trump said that Patrick Pizzella, currently deputy secretary of labor, will become acting secretary of the department.
The 2008 plea deal in Florida came under renewed scrutiny in light of Epstein’s indictment Monday on more child sex trafficking charges in New York.
At a news conference Wednesday, Acosta defended his role as the federal prosecutor in brokering the plea deal for Epstein, but lawyers for alleged victims criticized his explanation and Democrats called for him to appear at a congressional hearing in two weeks.
He said a state’s attorney in Palm Beach County was preparing to allow Epstein to plead to a single charge of solicitation that did not make a reference to the age of the female minor. That deal would have carried no jail time and would not have required Epstein to register as a sex offender.
“We wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” Acosta said. “He needed to go to jail.”
The former state’s attorney for Palm Beach County at the time of the Epstein plea deal released a statement disputing Acosta’s account following the news conference.
“I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong,” said Barry Krischer, who added that Acosta could have moved forward with a 53-page indictment that his office had drafted.
After Acosta’s news conference, the reaction inside the White House was mixed, according to a senior White House official, who requested anonymity to speak more candidly.
Some aides thought Acosta had adequately explained his handling of the Epstein case, and had “won” by not further harming himself, the official said. But others had been expecting a more animated performance, and found Acosta’s time before the cameras disappointing, saying he’d failed to mount a full-throated defense of himself.
Trump expressed skepticism at Acosta’s performance and began asking senior aides what he should do about him, according to two White House officials, who also requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Acosta was disliked by acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who told others he was ineffective at implementing the administration’s deregulation agenda, the officials said.
But Trump did not originally want to be seen as cutting ties with him over a decade-old episode, even as some of his longest advisers believed Acosta’s departure was inevitable given the cascade of sustained news coverage and the facts of the case.
Trump told reporters that he thought Acosta had “explained” the plea deal during his news conference.
“He made a deal that people were happy with, and 12 years later they weren’t happy with it,” Trump said. “You’ll have to figure that out.”
Publicly, congressional Republicans continued to stand by Acosta, saying issues about the plea deal were vetted at his confirmation hearing in 2017.
Epstein, 66, signed a non-prosecution agreement with federal authorities and pleaded guilty in state court in 2008 to felony solicitation of underage girls.
During his 13-month sentence in a Palm Beach, Fla., jail, Epstein was allowed to work out of his office six days a week. As U.S. attorney, Acosta approved the deal. A federal judge this year ruled that prosecutors violated the rights of victims by failing to notify them of an agreement not to bring federal charges.
On Tuesday, Acosta mounted a vigorous self-defense on Twitter, writing that the crimes committed by Epstein were “horrific” and that he was pleased that prosecutors in New York were moving forward with a new case.
He suggested that the evidence prosecutors now have – including lewd photographs of underage girls seized in a raid on Epstein’s mansion – were not available to his team when he was Miami’s U.S. attorney from 2005 to 2009.
The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.