By Roberta Rampton and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who is under pressure from Democrats to resign over his handling of a decade-old sex abuse case against financier Jeffrey Epstein, but said he, too, would look into it.
Federal sex trafficking charges were brought against Epstein on Monday, raising new questions about Acosta’s handling of a related case in Florida in 2008. Federal prosecutors including Acosta reached a plea deal with Epstein that has since come under scrutiny as being too lenient.
Top Democratic lawmakers and many Democratic candidates vying to run against Trump in the 2020 presidential election called for Acosta to step down.
“I feel very badly actually for Secretary Acosta because I’ve known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I feel very badly about that whole situation. But we’re going to be looking at that, and looking at it very closely.”
It was not the first time that Trump has defended a Cabinet member casting a shadow on his administration. Trump stuck by his former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, and his former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in the face of months of investigations into spending and expenses. Both men eventually left the cabinet.
Trump made no reference to the crimes that Epstein is charged with or the victims who have come forward. He said he knew the financier, but had a “falling out” with him long ago and they have not spoken in 15 years. Trump did not comment on what the disagreement was about.
He said Acosta had been an “excellent” secretary of labour and that he thought there were many others involved in the decisions involving the earlier Epstein case. And, he added, “you’re talking about a long time ago.”
After leading Democrats called for him to step down, Acosta defended his actions on Twitter and called Epstein’s crimes “horrific.”
“I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence,” Acosta said.
“With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Acosta must step down – or be fired. Schumer also called on Trump to explain his past relationship with Epstein.
“I am calling on Secretary Acosta to resign,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor. “It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta’s ability to lead the Department of Labor.”
“If he refuses to resign, President Trump should fire him,” Schumer added.
In a late-Monday tweet Pelosi said: “As US Attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called the allegations against Epstein horrendous and it was “good news that they’re being pursued further.” He said he deferred to Trump to make the decision on whether to fire Acosta.
U.S. prosecutors in New York accused Epstein, 66, of sex trafficking in an indictment that detailed how he lured dozens of girls, some as young as 14, to his luxury homes and coerced them into performing sex acts. Epstein has pleaded not guilty.
Schumer’s question about Trump’s relationship with Acosta referred to a 2002 New York magazine article in which Trump was quoted as saying that Epstein “was a ‘terrific guy’ who enjoyed women ‘on the younger side.’”
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who brought the latest indictment, said the office was not bound by the 2008 Florida deal struck by Acosta, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
That agreement allowed Epstein to plea to a lesser offence. He served 13 months in a county jail in Florida with leave during the day and was required to register as a sex offender.
Epstein’s case drew renewed attention earlier this year after the Miami Herald reported the plea deal and his alleged victims’ ongoing struggle for justice amid the #MeToo movement that has unveiled sexual abuse and harassment by powerful men.
In February, a federal judge in Florida ruled that the 2008 agreement violated the victims’ rights.
Epstein has had a reputation for socializing with politicians, scientists and royalty, with friends who have included Trump, former President Bill Clinton, and according to court papers, Britain’s Prince Andrew. None of those people was mentioned in the indictment.
Acosta has served as Trump’s labour secretary since April 2017. His role in the Florida agreement was raised at his confirmation hearing in the Republican-led Senate.
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General William Barr will not recuse himself from involvement in the new indictment, a Justice Department official said Tuesday. He and Acosta had both done work with the law firm Kirkland & Ellis.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, Richard Cowan, Sarah N. Lynch, Susan Heavey; Writing by Doina Chiau; Editing by Dave Gregorio and Susan Thomas)