President Donald Trump said Tuesday that Labor Secretary Alex Acosta has been “excellent” and a “very good Secretary of Labor,” but as for the labor secretary’s future in light of charges filed against Jeffrey Epstein, Trump would only say that the White House would be looking at his role in the 2008 case “very closely.”
“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,” he told reporters in the Oval Office during a meeting with the Emir of Qatar. “Now part of it is our economy is so good, our unemployment numbers are at record lows, so many good things are happening but the fact is he’s been a very good secretary of labor.”
Acosta is facing renewed scrutiny for his role in handling a 2008 plea agreement for Epstein, who was charged Monday with having allegedly operated a sex trafficking ring in which he allegedly sexually abused dozens of underage girls. As a US attorney in Florida more than a decade ago, Acosta helped the multimillionaire Epstein secure a non-prosecution deal for similar charges, described as a “deal of a lifetime” by an investigative report in the Miami Herald last year. Epstein ultimately served only 13 months and avoided a federal trial.
The President has privately said he has confidence in Acosta, according to people familiar with his remarks. He is making a similar argument to what he said in the Oval Office Tuesday – downplaying Acosta’s role in Epstein’s plea deal, which, as a federal prosecutor, he oversaw.
Trump said Tuesday that “a lot” of people were involved in the 2008 case in addition to Acosta.
“I do hear that there were a lot of people involved in that decision. Not just him,” he said. “I can only say this from what I know and what I do know is that he’s been a great, really great secretary of labor. The rest, we’ll have to look at 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. So we’re going to look at it very carefully.”
He later added that he felt “badly” for his labor secretary.
“I feel very badly actually for Secretary Acosta because I’ve known him as being somebody who works so hard and has done such a good job. 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.
Trump has also pointed out that former President Bill Clinton was a friend of Epstein’s. Clinton’s spokesman released a statement distancing the Democrat from Epstein on Monday.
However, Trump’s associates believe that confidence could disappear in a flash, as CNN reported earlier Tuesday, depending on the coverage. The President’s longtime friend Chris Ruddy told CNN’s Don Lemon tonight that he believes Acosta will be out in a matter of weeks, though he said he has not spoken to Trump about the matter.
Earlier Tuesday, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the President, would not say whether Trump has confidence in Acosta.
Pressed repeatedly by reporters on whether Trump has confidence in his labor secretary, Conway would not directly say, but she also said Acosta is “doing a great job.”
Acosta tweeted Tuesday that he is “pleased NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence.”
He also defended prosecutors’ prior actions in Florida saying, “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.”
Multiple key Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and 2020 presidential candidates, have called on Acosta to step down for his role in the 2008 plea deal.
Acosta’s future in the Trump administration is likely to depend on news coverage of his role in Epstein’s plea agreement and how loud the calls for his resignation become, according to people close to Trump.
A senior administration official was cautious in assessing Acosta’s standing with the White House Monday.
“We will wait and see what develops. This is obviously a significant event,” the official said following Monday’s charges, adding, “We need to see what comes of it.”
Acosta does not have a wealth of support in the West Wing and has taken on a low profile, according to officials, so it could be more difficult for him to hang on. But Trump has previously been wary of firing Cabinet officials because it fuels the sense his administration is in chaos.
Conway took issue Tuesday with reports that Acosta had been on thin ice within the administration, saying, “I disagree with that insofar as the President’s been very happy with the President’s moves on taxation, regulation, energy development – any number of measures the President has taken to help with this jobs boom. Obviously he’s relied heavily on his Department of Labor to help execute on that and that involves a number of people.”
Then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters in February that the White House would be conducting an internal review of Acosta’s role in the deal following the Miami Herald’s report. Conway would not comment on that internal review Tuesday, but she did note that his role in the 2008 case came up during his confirmation hearing.
“The Senate asked Acosta these questions, he was under oath. Maybe you wish they had asked different or more questions,” she said.
Epstein has a tangled web of powerful friends and connections. Trump called Epstein a “terrific guy” in a 2002 interview with New York Magazine. Multiple reports also describe his circle of friends as including former President Bill Clinton, Britain’s Prince Andrew and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.
Trump also disavowed Epstein, saying the two had a falling out.
“Well, I knew him like everybody 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, you know, a long time ago, maybe 15 years,” Trump said of Epstein.
Trump did not respond to multiple questions from reporters on what the falling out was about.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Kaitlan Collins, Gregory Wallace and Shimon Prokupecz contributed to this report.