ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Labor Secretary Alex Acosta spent almost an hour this afternoon before reporters and TV cameras, defending a plea agreement he negotiated years ago as a U.S. attorney in Florida. It's the agreement that allowed Jeffrey Epstein, a well-connected businessman, to avoid federal charges for sexually abusing girls.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ALEX ACOSTA: I know that in 2019, looking back on 2008, things may look different. But this was the judgment of prosecutors with dozens of years of experience.
SHAPIRO: Acosta is facing intense criticism this week after federal prosecutors in New York brought new charges against Epstein for sex trafficking. NPR White House reporter Ayesha Rascoe is following this story and joins us now.
AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.
SHAPIRO: What did Acosta say today about the plea deal he reached with Epstein in 2008?
RASCOE: Essentially, Acosta put a lot of the blame on the state of Florida, where Epstein is accused of committing some of these crimes. Acosta said this was a state case at first and not federal and that at the time, it looked like Epstein might have been able to walk with a very minor charge at the state level. So Acosta said federal prosecutors intervened and threatened to bring federal charges against Epstein unless he agreed to plea to state charges that would requires jail time and for him to register as a sex offender as well as opening the door to victims getting restitution. He's arguing that this was the best arrangement for the time. Here's more of what Acosta said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ACOSTA: There is a value to a short guilty plea because letting him walk, letting what the state attorney was ready to do go forward would have been absolutely awful.
RASCOE: And, you know, he also talked a lot about how things have changed since then and how things are more transparent now and how victim shaming is frowned upon at this point and that it wasn't back then. So this is his argument. He's not saying that he regrets his actions. He's not saying he would do anything differently. He's saying that it was a very tough case and that they tried to make the best decision.
SHAPIRO: He's been under so much pressure this week. President Trump said yesterday that he thinks Acosta is doing an excellent job. How likely is he to stay in this job as labor secretary?
RASCOE: Well, Acosta went out of his way today to say that he's talked with the president and that they're on good terms. He even pushed back on reports that he'd had this falling out with Trump's acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. He said that's not true. Trump did stand up for Acosta yesterday. The thing is this kind of happens. There's a pattern with this, where Trump will be very supportive at the start of an uproar.
But kind of as it drags on, his support in the past for other members of the Cabinet or nominees have faded. And they end up being let go, so there does seem to be a limit on how much Trump will allow the spotlight to be on his Cabinet, especially in a negative way. But Acosta did acknowledge this kind of at the press conference. He said the press conference wasn't aimed at the president, but if Trump - it's up to Trump to decide whether he stays or not and that he serves at the pleasure of the president.
SHAPIRO: Most of the loudest voices calling for Acosta to step down have been Democrats. What are Republicans saying?
RASCOE: Well, right now Republicans seem to be really holding their fire on Acosta. They are saying that more details need to come out. He needs to be allowed to explain himself like he did today and that people also shouldn't keep all of their blame on Acosta. But Senator Susan Collins did raise some concerns about victims not being notified of this plea deal back in 2008.
SHAPIRO: Just briefly, what was Acosta's message to victims today?
RASCOE: He wouldn't apologize, but he did express sympathy for the horrific abuse that they encountered. And he just said that he felt sorry for what happened to them, but they - that his office did the best they could to, I guess, get them justice at the time.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Ayesha Rascoe.
RASCOE: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.