Trump 'feels badly' for labor secretary amid calls for resignation over Epstein case

Tom McCarthy in New York
Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Donald Trump on Monday defended his labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, from accusations that he helped Jeffrey Epstein, the financier charged with sex trafficking on Monday, escape justice 10 years ago.

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Then, Epstein was suspected of similar crimes in Florida, where Acosta was a top federal prosecutor.

“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,” said Trump, who previously called Epstein “a terrific guy”.

“I feel very badly about that whole situation. But we’re going to be looking at that, and looking at it very closely.”

Epstein was arrested on Saturday after disembarking from a private flight from France. He pleaded not guilty to federal charges brought on Monday in New York. A bail hearing is set for next Monday.

I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with

Donald Trump, 2002

Critics of Acosta said Epstein should never have been allowed to walk free after dozens of young girls began to step forward in 2005 to identify as victims of a man now charged with assaulting underage girls, paying them off with cash and inducing them to lure other young girls to his homes.

As part of a secret plea deal signed by Acosta in 2008 and criticized as “ridiculously lenient”, Epstein pleaded guilty to a state-level charge of soliciting prostitution from girls as young as 14 and registered as a sex offender.

Trump said that was “a long time ago”.

“He’s been a great, really great secretary of labor,” Trump said, speaking to reporters in the Oval Office. “The rest of it, we’ll have to look at it very carefully. But you’re talking about a long time ago and again it was a decision made, I think, not by him but by a lot of people.”

A growing wave of Democrats called for Acosta to step down. Scattered Republicans said a review of the plea deal appeared appropriate.

“If [Acosta] refuses to resign, president Trump should fire him,” the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, said on the floor of the chamber. “Instead of prosecuting a predator and serial sex trafficker of children, Acosta chose to let him off. We cannot have as one of the leading appointed officials in America someone who has done this.”

Acosta defended himself on Twitter, calling Epstein’s alleged crimes “horrific” and saying new evidence had come to light.

“Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice,” Acosta tweeted.

But critics argue that plenty of evidence of Epstein’s alleged misdeeds, including a 53-page sex crimes indictment prepared in 2007 and built on a years-long FBI investigation, was available to Acosta and his team 10 years ago.

In a report by the Miami Herald, whose work on the case was cited on Monday by prosecutors in New York, multiple sources involved in the case at the time accused Acosta of caving to pressure from Epstein’s lawyers.

I wasn’t a fan … I was not a fan of his. That I can tell you. I was not a fan of his

Donald Trump, 2019

Republican senator Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the judiciary committee, said on Tuesday: “If this plea deal doesn’t withstand scrutiny, then it would be the job of the judiciary committee to find out how it got off the rails.”

His Republican colleague Joni Ernst added: “I do think it’s imperative that we take a look at it.”

Personal connections inside the Trump administration to Epstein could complicate the picture. Epstein once taught at a school run by the father of the attorney general William Barr, who said on Tuesday he would not recuse himself from the case but that he would decline to take part in any review of the Florida plea deal.

Trump himself described Epstein, who has said he made a fortune managing money for billionaires, as a friend in a 2002 magazine profile.

“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years,” Trump said then. “Terrific guy. 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.”

Related: MeToo isn't over yet. Ask Jeffrey Epstein | Linda Hirshman

On Tuesday Trump distanced himself from Epstein.

“I knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him,” the president said. “I mean people in Palm Beach knew him. He was a fixture in Palm Beach. I had a falling out with him a long time ago. I don’t think I’ve spoken to him for 15 years. I wasn’t a fan … I was not a fan of his. That I can tell you. I was not a fan of his.”

The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, tweeted that Trump had all the information he needed to make a decision about Acosta.

“Secretary Acosta must step down,” she wrote. “As US attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement with Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice. This was known by [Trump] when he appointed him to the cabinet.”

But Pelosi stopped short of calling for a congressional investigation.

“It’s up to the president, it’s his cabinet,” she told reporters. “We have a great deal of work to do here for the good of the American people and we have to focus on that.”