WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump defended his embattled Labor Secretary Alex Acosta Tuesday after Democratic lawmakers urged his resignation over a plea agreement negotiated with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein years ago when Acosta was U.S. attorney in Florida.
"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 in the Oval Office. "I feel very badly about that whole situation. But we’re going to be looking at that and looking at it very closely.”
Trump said the plea deal was reached a "long time ago" and that there were a lot of other people also involved in the decision to reach an agreement that resulted in a lenient sentence for Epstein.
"I do hear there were a lot of people involved in that decision, not just him," he said.
Trump called Acosta an "excellent" labor secretary.
Dealing with the fallout: Jeffrey Epstein: Labor Secretary Alex Acosta 'pleased' prosecutors moving forward
Epstein, 66, was arrested Saturday on charges of sex-trafficking girls as young as 14. He pleaded not guilty in a Manhattan federal court on Monday. The indictment against him alleges he "sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes" in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida.
In November, the Miami Herald published an in-depth look at the 2007 deal that showed that Acosta – then the top federal prosecutor in Miami – was directly involved in negotiating a deal with Epstein's lawyers in which the wealthy and influential hedge fund manager agreed to plead guilty to two state felony prostitution charges, pay restitution to his victims, register as a sex offender and serve 13-months in county jail.
But Epstein was able to serve much of that sentence from his Palm Beach office as part of a work-release program. He had faced a possible life sentence if convicted on the federal charges looming over him.
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Top Democrats in Congress have called on Acosta to resign because of his role in the plea agreement.
Meanwhile, Trump also distanced himself from Epstein, saying Tuesday that the multimillionaire was a fixture in Palm Beach and that he knew him, but he said they had a falling out about 15 years ago.
In 2002, about three years before investigators opened their first probe into Epstein, Trump told New York Magazine he had known Epstein for 15 years. Trump called Epstein a "terrific guy" and said, "He's a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
But Trump downplayed his relationship with Epstein on Tuesday.
“I knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him," Trump said. "...He was a fixture in Palm Beach. I had a falling out with him a long time ago. I don’t think I have spoken with him for 15 years. I was not a fan."
Contributing: William Cummings
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump defends Acosta role in plea deal involving accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein