Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta has his story and he’s sticking to both that story and his job, if he can keep it. Acosta’s story is that billionaire sex predator Jeffrey Epstein didn’t get a sweetheart deal in 2007 from then-U.S. Attorney Acosta and his team of federal prosecutors. Instead, Acosta’s office stepped in to stop Epstein from getting off easy, and ensured that he would serve jail time and register as a sex offender, and that victims could seek restitution. That’s what Acosta told The Daily Beast in 2011 and it’s what he said—again and again—in a Wednesday afternoon press conference in which it was clear that Acosta has absolutely no intention of resigning, but also that he was fighting for his reputation, speaking and taking questions for nearly an hour.
Acosta began by emphasizing that he’s pleased about the new sex trafficking charges against Epstein, and emphasizing that those charges involve new evidence. In that, he reiterated his Tuesday tweets, which obviously hadn’t set the matter to rest. Acosta pushed back against a reporter asking if Donald Trump had urged him to hold the press conference, but there are multiple such reports, so Acosta’s performance has to be measured against what Trump likes to see from his underlings. In that, he was certainly lacking the bluster Trump thinks shows strength and conviction—though he did notably refuse to apologize to Epstein’s victims. “The prosecutors were trying to do the right thing,” Acosta insisted. So, no, no apologies. His message to victims was “Come forward,” not “I’m sorry,” no matter how many times he claimed to be sympathetic to the victims and appalled by what they’ve gone through. In his telling, Acosta was essentially powerless to go further. He had done all he could do, and it was more than anyone else would have done, he repeatedly suggested.
Acosta emphasized that state prosecutors were prepared to let Epstein off without jail time or registration as a sex offender before federal prosecutors stepped in. His own office, in this telling, was the hero of the scenario. But, he said, while the federal prosecutors were prepared to take Epstein’s case to trial if state prosecutors hadn’t come up to scratch, “There is a big gulf between sufficient evidence to go to trial and sufficient evidence to be confident in the outcome of that trial.” What he didn’t have was a great answer to the question of why his office didn’t more fully investigate the allegations against Epstein and get sufficient evidence.
Neither did Acosta have much of an answer for the fact that he and his team were lambasted this year by a federal judge for not notifying victims of the non-prosecution deal, in violation of a victims’ rights law. And when I say he didn’t have much of an answer, I mean answer: Acosta didn’t raise that issue at all in his prepared remarks, coming to it only under questioning by reporters. His response? “We followed department policy”—and it turns out that that policy was, according to the federal judge in the case, in violation of the law. At another point, Acosta claimed that a career prosecutor did try to notify victims, but wasn’t able to contact them in the available time before the deal was done. Neither of these was the most compelling answer.
Acosta doesn’t mean to resign. The question now is if Acosta’s performance—and the TV news coverage resulting from it—convinces Trump to stay on his side.