WASHINGTON (AP) — A parade of presidential contenders and other top Democrats demanded Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s labor secretary quit because he helped craft a secret 2008 plea deal that let a wealthy financier avoid prison after allegations of molesting teenage girls. Trump said he feels badly for Secretary Alexander Acosta but will look “very closely” at the issue.
Acosta and by extension Trump, who appointed him to his Cabinet post, have drawn renewed attention since federal prosecutors in New York unveiled an indictment Monday charging financier Jeffrey Epstein with sexually abusing dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s.
The new attention to Acosta’s role in the extraordinary plea deal 11 years ago, back when he was a South Florida federal prosecutor, was spreading to Trump. And not merely because he appointed Acosta to head the Labor Department.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Trump must explain why he made glowing comments about the financier in 2002 to New York Magazine. Trump told the publication that he’d known the now jailed billionaire for 15 years and considered him “a terrific guy” who enjoyed women “on the younger side.”
“The president needs to answer for this, and ‘I don’t recall’ is not an acceptable answer in this case, particularly since President Trump appointed Acosta to such a powerful position,” Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor.
Trump, questioned on Tuesday, said he feels “very badly” for Acosta because he’s been a “very good” secretary of labor. But the president also said repeatedly that the White House would be looking deeper into the issue.
He said he’d had “a falling out” with Epstein and hadn’t been in contact for about 15 years.
In a series of tweets Tuesday, Acosta said that new evidence about Epstein now available in New York “offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.” He said Epstein’s actions were “horrific” and expressed pleasure that prosecutors in New York were presenting a new case, but made no mention of the calls for him to step down.
Schumer said Acosta must quit and said if he didn’t, Trump should fire him.
“Instead of prosecuting a predator and serial sex trafficker of children, Acosta chose to let him off easy,” Schumer said. “This is not acceptable. We cannot have as one of the leading appointed officials in America someone who has done this.”
Also calling for Acosta’s resignation were many members of Democrats’ huge field of presidential hopefuls. They included Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee, and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California called for Acosta’s resignation or dismissal late Monday.
Epstein, known for a jet-setting lifestyle and connections to the powerful including Trump and former President Bill Clinton, could face up to 45 years in prison if he is convicted on the sex trafficking and conspiracy charges. He has pleaded not guilty.
The South Florida case against Epstein involved at least 40 teenage girls. The agreement Acosta was involved in let him avoid a possible life sentence if he had been convicted.
Klobuchar tweeted, “Since when do underage girl sex ring traffickers get to go to their office every day while they serve their time?”
Under the 2008 deal, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution and served 13 months in jail, during which he was allowed out to go to his office during the day.
Referring to the Labor secretary’s post, Gillibrand told a reporter in Manchester, New Hampshire, that Acosta “never should have been there in the first place.”
Monday night, Pelosi tweeted, “As US Attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice. This was known by @POTUS when he appointed him to the cabinet.” She added the hashtag, #AcostaResign.
“He’s a lot of fun to be with,” Trump was quoted as telling New York magazine in 2002. “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.”
Conway also defended Acosta, telling reporters to remember who the “perpetrator is here.”
Epstein has also won praise from former President Clinton for his philanthropic efforts, and Clinton frequently flew aboard Epstein’s private jet.