President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he feels “very badly” for Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, as the embattled Cabinet official faces an onslaught of calls by Democratic lawmakers to resign for his role in brokering financier Jeffrey Epstein’s 2008 plea deal on sex abuse charges.
“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. I feel very badly about that whole situation,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, adding that the White House will be reviewing Acosta’s handling of the case.
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“We’re going to be looking at that and looking at it very closely,” Trump said. But last year, former press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House was reviewing the situation in the wake of a Miami Herald report that detailed the scope of Epstein’s abuse and the deal he was granted. The White House didn’t answer questions on whether they conducted an inquiry then.
Less than an hour before the president’s remarks, Acosta took to Twitter to defend his approval of the Epstein non-prosecution agreement he helped negotiate more than a decade ago as a U.S. attorney in Miami, which resulted in a lenient 18-month sentence.
“The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence,” Acosta wrote online, referring to the federal sex trafficking indictment brought Monday by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.
“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,” Acosta continued. “Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”
Several Democratic presidential candidates and members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, have called on Acosta to step down.
Trump claimed Tuesday that he first met Acosta at the outset of his administration, “when I made the deal to bring him on” to lead the Labor Department, and praised Acosta’s performance in the role since being confirmed by the Senate in April 2017.
“I can tell you that for two-and-a-half years, he’s been just an excellent secretary of Labor. He’s done a fantastic job,” Trump said.
The president also sought to downplay the relevance of Acosta’s involvement in the Epstein case, and suggested public officials frequently come to regret choices made years earlier in their careers.
“You know, if you go back and look at everybody else’s decisions, whether it’s a U.S. attorney or an assistant U.S. attorney or a judge, you go back 12 or 15 years ago or 20 years ago and look at their past decisions,” Trump said. “I would think you’d probably find that they would wish they maybe did it a different way. I do hear that there were a lot of people involved in that decision, not just him.”