Acosta to Resign as Labor Secretary Over Jeffrey Epstein Plea Deal

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s embattled labor secretary, R. Alexander Acosta, announced his resignation on Friday amid continuing questions about his handling of a sex crimes case involving the financier Jeffrey Epstein when Mr. Acosta was a federal prosecutor in Florida.

Mr. Trump, who announced the resignation, said Mr. Acosta had called him on Friday morning to tell the president he planned to step down. Mr. Acosta’s decision came only two days after he held a news conference to defend his handling of the 2008 sex crimes prosecution of Mr. Epstein while trying to quell a chorus of Democratic calls for his resignation and convincing Mr. Trump he was strong enough to survive.

“He felt the constant drumbeat of press about a prosecution which took place under his watch more than 12 years ago was bad for the Administration, which he so strongly believes in, and he graciously tendered his resignation,” the president wrote on Twitter after appearing with Mr. Acosta on the South Lawn of the White House before leaving for Milwaukee and Cleveland.

“This was him, not me,” the president said of Mr. Acosta’s decision to resign, adding that Mr. Acosta has been a “great, great secretary” and a “tremendous talent,” and noting that “he went to Harvard, a great student.”

Mr. Acosta acknowledged that the story line around him was a distraction to Mr. Trump. “The focus needs to be on this economy and on job creation, on the decreased fatalities in the workplace and in mining,” he said. “And going forward, that’s where this administration needs to focus, not on this matter.”

Mr. Trump named Mr. Acosta’s deputy, Patrick Pizzella, to serve as acting secretary of labor when Mr. Acosta’s resignation becomes effective July 19. That will bring to four the number of cabinet agencies led by acting secretaries.

The president had initially told people that he thought that Mr. Acosta did well in explaining why he had agreed to a plea deal in which Mr. Epstein served 13 months in jail after being accused of sexually abusing dozens of young women and girls. But after watching a day of coverage critical of Mr. Acosta and hearing from allies who warned that his labor secretary was always going to be a distraction, Mr. Trump began questioning whether he should keep Mr. Acosta, according to people familiar with the president’s thinking.

Mr. Acosta, according to two people familiar with his thinking, was under the impression that Mr. Trump was pleased with how he explained himself there and parried questions from journalists. Top officials at the Labor Department thought the news conference — which had been requested by Mr. Trump — had helped Mr. Acosta save his job and were taken aback by his abrupt resignation, a decision Mr. Acosta made without consulting a wide circle of advisers, or telling many colleagues of his plans.

But Mr. Acosta, those people said, had never been a natural fit in the circuslike environment of the Trump administration. He viewed the cabinet position as a steppingstone to his real professional goal: a judicial appointment on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Some White House officials thought he was making decisions at the Labor Department with that future in mind, trying not to alienate Senate Democrats whose support he would need in a confirmation hearing.

Mr. Pizzella served as an assistant secretary of labor under President George W. Bush and on the Federal Labor Relations Authority during the Obama administration. But it was his work at a lobbying firm with Jack Abramoff, later a felon, that provoked the most intense opposition during Mr. Pizzella’s confirmation hearings in 2017.

One of the firm’s largest clients was the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a United States territory in the Pacific Ocean, near Guam, exempted from American immigration and minimum wage laws. Large textile manufacturers set up production on the islands, often under horrific conditions. Mr. Pizzella was part of a team that worked on behalf of the commonwealth to prevent Congress from altering the terms of its economic deal.

Mr. Acosta’s role in the prosecution of Mr. Epstein came up during his confirmation hearings, but it was only when federal prosecutors in Manhattan brought new charges against Mr. Epstein this week, accusing him of child sex trafficking, that the federal government’s handling of accusations against him more than a decade ago became a highly publicized issue.

The new charges also drew new attention to Mr. Trump’s own previous relationship with Mr. Epstein, whom in 2002 he described as “a terrific guy,” and provided a new line of attack for some 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

The president repeated on Friday that he cut ties with Mr. Epstein years ago after a falling-out.

“I haven’t spoken to him in 15 years or more,” Mr. Trump said. “I wasn’t a big fan of Jeffrey Epstein, that I can tell you.”

At his news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Acosta said the plea agreement was the best way under the circumstances to ensure that Mr. Epstein would face jail time. Going to trial with the goal of a harsher sentence, he said, would have been “a roll of the dice.”

Mr. Acosta said he wanted to help Mr. Epstein’s victims. “And that’s what the prosecutors of my office did — they insisted that he go to jail and put the world on notice that he was and is a sexual predator,” he said.

Mr. Acosta offered a similar defense to senators during his confirmation process to be labor secretary in 2017, when he weathered criticism about the Epstein plea deal and won confirmation in a 60-to-38 vote. But this week’s hourlong explanation appeared insufficient to stem outrage after new federal charges revealed lewd details about Mr. Epstein’s relations with vulnerable young women and girls.

Prosecutors accused Mr. Epstein and his employees of running a sex-trafficking scheme to bring dozens of girls — some as young as 14 — to his homes in New York and Palm Beach, Fla., from 2002 to 2005. If convicted, he could face up to 45 years in prison.

Congressional Democrats on Thursday demanded a briefing from the Justice Department about the 2008 agreement by Mr. Acosta’s office not to prosecute Mr. Epstein, which included a promise to Mr. Epstein’s defense team that federal prosecutors would not notify his victims of the arrangement, a practice that was not only unusual but against the law. The secrecy around the negotiations raised questions why Mr. Epstein — whom Mr. Trump recently described as a “fixture” in Palm Beach, where the president’s Mar-a-Lago club is — received such a lenient punishment.

Lisa Bloom, a lawyer who represents several of Mr. Epstein’s accusers, said Mr. Acosta never belonged in the position in Mr. Trump’s administration that he is leaving.

“President Trump was willing to overlook Acosta’s sweetheart deal with Epstein when he appointed Acosta, even though many raised this issue at the time,” Ms. Bloom said in an email. “Acosta has abused his public trust and should never have been appointed in the first place.”

She said her clients were struggling with memories of the sexual abuse, prompted by news of the new charges, “but also hopeful that accountability may really, finally, at last be possible.”

Theodore J. Leopold, a Miami lawyer who represented one of the first girls to come forward, said Mr. Acosta was likely forced out because of election year pressure.

“I personally think the resignation has to do more with fact every day in news the president’s name was coming up in conjunction with Epstein,” Mr. Leopold said. “This is going to be a campaign issue. It was going to come back to the president at some point in time if Acosta stayed, because every day there was more fuel to the fire.”

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