Labor Secretary Alex Acosta Defends His Handling Of Jeffrey Epstein Plea Deal Labor Secretary Alex Acosta defended a 2008 plea agreement he oversaw as a U.S. attorney in Florida in which multimillionaire and accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein got a light sentence in exchange for pleading guilty to state charges. This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, Congressional reporter Kelsey Snell, and national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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Labor Secretary Alex Acosta Defends His Handling Of Jeffrey Epstein Plea Deal

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Labor Secretary Alex Acosta Defends His Handling Of Jeffrey Epstein Plea Deal

Labor Secretary Alex Acosta Defends His Handling Of Jeffrey Epstein Plea Deal

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SANG: This is Sang (ph) calling from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I just finished the Victoria Falls marathon and have now completed my goal of running a half or full marathon in all 50 states and seven continents. This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

3:48 p.m. on Wednesday the 10 of July.

SANG: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. Keep up with all of NPR's political coverage on npr.org, on the NPR One app and on your local public radio station. All right, here's the show.

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KEITH: Well, congratulations on that epic accomplishment.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: That's super cool.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: I'm so glad I ate cake for lunch and haven't exercised in a month. Woo.

KEITH: Woo. We are winning. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

JOHNSON: And I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.

KEITH: All right. So we are all here today because Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta just held a very long press conference defending his role in a case years ago back when he was a prosecutor dealing with a multi-millionaire named Jeffrey Epstein. Carrie Johnson, Epstein is facing charges again related to sex trafficking. I'm hoping you can catch us up on this case.

JOHNSON: Jeffrey Epstein has been indicted in Manhattan - in New York - for any allegations of sex trafficking and conspiracy. But he's getting attention - and as is the current labor secretary - because more than 10 years ago, the Justice Department signed a non-prosecution agreement with this same guy, Jeffrey Epstein, around similar kinds of allegations.

Jeffrey Epstein, who's been linked to some very high-level politicians, including current President Donald Trump and former President Bill Clinton and a whole bunch of others - Jeffrey Epstein actually pleaded guilty to state prostitution charges more than 10 years ago. He got a 13-month jail sentence. But he was allowed to leave jail almost every day to work and go to lunch. And that deal is now being criticized as way too lenient. The man who signed that deal was Alex Acosta, then the U.S. attorney in Miami.

KEITH: And now the labor secretary. What Epstein is charged with and accused of is pretty terrible.

JOHNSON: It's as bad as it gets, Tam. Some people have likened it to a sexual pyramid scheme but involving girls, some girls as young as 14 years old. We have seen photographs of some girls who say they are survivors of sexual abuse by Epstein. They were wearing braces at the time some of this conduct occurred.

KEITH: So, Kelsey, the reason why Alexander Acosta had a press conference, though, is because he is now in the spotlight having to defend his decisions from all those years ago. And there's been a sort of a drumbeat getting louder on Capitol Hill.

SNELL: Right. I mean, the thing that - up here in the capital that members of Congress want to know is, why did Acosta enter into this non-prosecution agreement for Epstein? Why did he serve so little? And why did Acosta step in to make sure that this happened?

Now, some members of Congress have been calling for Acosta to be removed or to resign as a result of his role in the 2008 case, not in this new case that is working its way through in New York, but his role in the non-prosecution agreement in Florida in 2008.

JOHNSON: You know, Kelsey, one of the things that Alex Acosta tried to do today in this news conference is defend himself. He basically said he took the best deal available at the time.

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ALEX ACOSTA: We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail. He needed to go to jail.

JOHNSON: Acosta said basically he and the feds went in on this more than 10 years ago because the state was going to let Jeffrey Epstein off light. And Acosta said that he tried to reach a deal so that Jeffrey Epstein would have pleaded guilty to something, that he would have to serve jail time and that he would have to register as a sex offender, and finally, that there would be some restitution to the victims.

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ACOSTA: And 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.

SNELL: Carrie, is it true that a 13-month plea agreement was the best they could actually do?

JOHNSON: You know. It's hard to say looking back. But a lot of former prosecutors have been highly, highly critical of Alex Acosta for trading away a case - a federal case against Jeffrey Epstein for what turned out to be a 13-month sentence. Acosta said today in his defense that he thought it was going to be an 18-month sentence, not a 13-month sentence. And Acosta actually said this in a moment of maybe earthiness - unusual earthiness that he thought that Jeffrey Epstein got out every day of jail to go to work release - Alex Acosta called that complete BS. The question, though, in the minds of a lot of former prosecutors and DOJ sources of mine is why you didn't just keep that federal case open for longer, do more investigating. Acosta said there were some problems with some of those girls - the survivors of alleged abuse by Epstein. Some of them did not want to come forward at the time. They were traumatized. They didn't want anybody else to know what had happened to them. In fact, he cited a sworn statement from a career lawyer saying some of those girls refused to testify before the grand jury. One may have moved out of the country. That said, there was really no harm in keeping the investigation open for longer at the federal level. We now see what's happened when other federal authorities have taken a look at this problem.

KEITH: Well, and we should also add that the reason - or a big reason - why this is back and why federal authorities were looking at this again is because of investigative reporting by The Miami Herald, among others, but especially the Miami Herald going out and finding other alleged victims and telling their stories.

SNELL: And the New York prosecutors, they have specifically said that. They praised the Miami Herald for the work that they did.

SNELL: All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, what comes next and what President Trump might think of all this.

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KEITH: And we're back. And we talked about congressional calls for Alex Acosta to resign. But there is another person that might have some say in that, and that person is President Trump.

JOHNSON: Yes, a guy who has talked a lot about firing over the years, right, Tam?

KEITH: Right. And yesterday, he was asked about Epstein and Acosta.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: 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. But we're going to be looking at that and looking at it very closely.

KEITH: Feels badly about that whole situation, which I guess that whole situation would be the victims. But also, there is a key phrase in there - we're going to be looking at that. We're going to be looking at that very closely. In my role as Trump translator, I will just say that that can sometimes be a kiss of death.

SNELL: I mean, how many times has he said something like that? I mean, it's probably hard to quantify. But we have seen this play out over and over and over again - somebody that is in the Cabinet, somebody that Trump has nominated gets into a scandal. There is a whole series of defenses of that person. And then all of a sudden, the pressure gets too much, and that person is either forced out or quits. It feels really familiar in that way.

KEITH: It does. He's used that exact phrase. He has praised the job someone is doing and then use that exact phrase, and then within either minutes, hours or days, that person is pushed out of the Cabinet or the administration. Will that happen with Acosta? We have no idea.

He was asked at the press conference today, did President Trump put you up to this? Did President Trump send you out here? Are you speaking to an audience of one? Are you just talking to the president? And he insisted, no.

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ACOSTA: I am here to talk about this case. I'm doing my job. If at some point the president decides that I am not the best person to do this job, I respect that. That is his choice. I serve at the pleasure of the president.

KEITH: He was just doing this to set the record straight. And he did talk for about an hour.

SNELL: I mean, to be fair, the other people who have done this have gone down this road of kind of defending themselves and doing it in such a public setting. They haven't admitted to, you know, having a press conference for the benefit of the president either. So this wouldn't be entirely surprising that he would deny that.

KEITH: Well, and actually doing a full-on press conference like this has been pretty rare in the Trump administration. It's more of a no apologies, move ahead kind of an administration. This was different. Now, Carrie and Kelsey, there's more to come though, right? This is not done with the press conference or even the prosecution of Epstein.

JOHNSON: No. In fact, next week, prosecutors in New York are going to be back in court. They're going to ask for Jeffrey Epstein to be detained pending trial. They think he's an extreme flight risk. The guy has untold millions, if not billions, of dollars in assets, two planes. And prosecutors say he is not reformed. He is not chastened. And he is not repentant after this earlier guilty plea.

There's something else that's going to be going on here, and that's that this non-prosecution agreement the U.S. attorney's office in Miami signed with Jeffrey Epstein may become part of Jeffrey Epstein's legal defense or legal attack. They appear to be setting up an argument that this deal from a long time ago may have precluded New York prosecutors from bringing charges. DOJ thoroughly rebuts that. But Jeffrey Epstein's defense is going to feature that argument moving forward.

KEITH: Isn't there also an internal investigation going on in the Justice Department about that?

JOHNSON: There is. The DOJ Office of Professional Responsibility is investigating all of this. And today, Alex Acosta said that he doesn't have to cooperate with them, but he will sit for a voluntary interview. This is the office that investigates misconduct allegations against prosecutors. It only has really the power to punish people who still work at the Justice Department, which Alex Acosta does not anymore. But it's certain to make life difficult for a lot of former government officials and some people in the U.S. attorney's office in Miami who still work there today.

SNELL: Well, this isn't going to go away for Acosta in any way. But even if he doesn't participate in this investigation, Democrats are already asking for access to information and a briefing about the investigation at DOJ. And they're asking Acosta to come and testify before the House Oversight Committee on July 23.

JOHNSON: Let me just point out that it's not just Democrats that have been on the case of Jeffrey Epstein. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, has been pounding this drum for months and months now, so much so that he even asked Bill Barr at his confirmation hearing to become attorney general to please look into this matter.

And I'm hearing behind the scenes that Sasse and his team continue to press the Justice Department for action on this. These internal investigations by Justice do not often become public because they involve a lot of privacy and personal privacy issues. But Kelsey's Democrats on Capitol Hill and her Republicans on Capitol Hill may come together and try to squeeze out this report whenever it comes.

JOHNSON: Though I will say there is a difference between being in favor of going after Epstein and, you know, breaking with the president on Acosta. And so far, I've talked to a lot of Republicans up here who have taken a wait-and-see approach to all of this, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have basically said this is up to the president.

KEITH: We'll see what happens with how President Trump feels about his labor secretary and whether what he said yesterday changes or whether Acosta persists. All right. That is a wrap for today. We will be back tomorrow with our weekly roundup. Until then, head to npr.org/politicsnewsletter to subscribe to a roundup of our best online analysis and reporting. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

JOHNSON: And I'm Carrie Johnson, national justice correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

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