WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, under pressure from Democrats to resign over his handling of a decade-old sex abuse case against financier Jeffrey Epstein, on Tuesday defended his actions as a former federal prosecutor and called Epstein’s crimes “horrific.”
Meanwhile President Donald Trump praised Acosta’s work in his administration, telling reporters at the White House: “I can tell you that for two and a half years, he’s been just an excellent secretary of labor.” But Trump added that Acosta’s success was due in part to the performance of the U.S. economy.
In his statement posted on Twitter, Acosta said, “I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence.”
On Monday, federal sex trafficking charges were brought against Epstein, raising new questions about Acosta’s handling of a related case in Florida in 2008. Federal prosecutors including Acosta reached a plea deal with Epstein that has since come under scrutiny as being too lenient.
“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 wrote on Twitter.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leading Democrats in Congress said Acosta must step down. Schumer also called on Trump to explain his past relationship with Epstein.
“I am calling on Secretary Acosta to resign,” Schumer said in a speech on the Senate floor. “It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta’s ability to lead the Department of Labor.”
“If he refuses to resign, President Trump should fire him,” Schumer added.
In a late-Monday tweet Pelosi said: “As US Attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice.”
It was not clear whether Republicans in Congress would stand by Acosta. On Monday evening, Republican Senator Mitt Romney said he would withhold comment while investigations were pending.
White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway called Epstein’s alleged crimes “disgusting,” but added that Trump “obviously wasn’t involved in the case, didn’t know Acosta at the time and didn’t follow the case very closely.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General William Barr will not recuse himself from involvement in the new indictment, a Justice Department official said Tuesday.
Representatives for Acosta did not respond to a request for comment.
U.S. prosecutors in New York accused Epstein, 66, of sex trafficking in an indictment that detailed how he lured dozens of girls, some as young as 14, to his luxury homes and coerced them into performing sex acts. Epstein has pleaded not guilty.
Schumer’s question about Trump’s relationship with Acosta referred to a 2002 New York magazine article in which Trump was quoted as saying that Epstein “was a ‘terrific guy’ who enjoyed women ‘on the younger side.’”
The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who brought the latest indictment, said the office was not bound by the 2008 Florida deal struck by Acosta, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
That agreement allowed Epstein to plea to a lesser offense. He served 13 months in a county jail in Florida with leave during the day and was required to register as a sex offender.
Epstein’s case drew renewed attention earlier this year after the Miami Herald reported the plea deal and his alleged victims’ ongoing struggle for justice amid the #MeToo movement that has unveiled sexual abuse and harassment by powerful men.
In February, a federal judge in Florida ruled that the 2008 agreement violated the victims’ rights.
Epstein has had a reputation for socializing with politicians, scientists and royalty, with friends who have included Trump, former President Bill Clinton, and according to court papers, Britain’s Prince Andrew. None of those people was mentioned in the indictment.
Clinton was completely unaware of Epstein’s “terrible crimes” and has not spoken to him in “well over a decade,” his spokesman said in a statement Monday.
Conway said she discussed the case with Trump early Tuesday and that the president told her that he had not had direct contact with Epstein in years.
“He doesn’t think he’s talked to or seen him in 10 or 15 years,” she told reporters.
Acosta has served as Trump’s labor secretary since April 2017. His role in the Florida agreement was raised at his confirmation hearing in the Republican-led Senate.