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U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta

U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta speaking at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)

Pelosi Joins McConnell in Deferring to Trump on Acosta's Future Amid Growing Calls for Labor Secretary to Resign

"The man currently running the Department of Labor knowingly enabled a sex trafficking pedophile, preventing his victims from seeking justice."

Jessica Corbett

In spite of growing public calls for Labor Secretary Alex Acosta to resign or be fired over a sweetheart plea deal he granted registered sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein while serving as a federal prosecutor in Florida, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday both deferred to President Donald Trump to decide his cabinet member's future.

"Acosta shielded Epstein from the justice he deserved and kept victims voiceless for over a decade. I've said it before and I'm saying it again: it's time for Acosta to go."
—Rep. Barbara Lee

Renewed scrutiny of Acosta and the widely decried deal, which shielded Epstein from federal charges more than a decade ago, comes after the financier was arrested Saturday. In a federal indictment (pdf) unsealed Monday, prosecutors allege that over several years, "Epstein created a vast network of underage victims for him to sexually exploit in locations including New York and Palm Beach." Epstein pleaded not guilty to the charges—one count of sex trafficking and one count of sex-trafficking conspiracy.

In a televised statement Tuesday, McConnell said that "there's no question that the accusations against Epstein are horrendous and I think it's good news that they're being pursued further. As to Secretary Acosta's continued service, he serves at the pleasure of the president, and I'm inclined to defer to the president to make that decision."

Pelosi, for her part, turned to Twitter Monday night to denounce the "unconscionable agreement" that Acosta negotiated with Epstein's attorneys and call on Acosta to resign from his current position in the Trump administration. However, the speaker suggested in comments to reporters Tuesday that she does not intend to take any steps to force out the labor secretary.

According to Politico's Heather Caygle, Pelosi dismissed the possibility of House Democrats launching an investigation or impeachment proceedings, saying that: "It's up to the president, it's his cabinet. We have a great deal of work to do here for the good of the American people and we have to focus on that."

Pelosi's comments on the issue left progressive political observers flummoxed:

Trump told reporters in the Oval Office Tuesday that Acosta has "done a fantastic job" as labor secretary. Referencing the controversial deal, he said, "The rest of it, we'll have to look at, we'll have to look at it very carefully."

Though the president is one of several well known, wealthy individuals who has been tied to Epstein, Trump tried to distance himself from the financier on Tuesday, adding:

I knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him. People in Palm Beach knew him. He was a fixture in Palm Beach. I had a falling-out with him a long time ago. I don't think I've spoken to him for 15 years. I wasn't a fan. ...I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you. I was not a fan of his. So, I feel very badly actually for Secretary Acosta because I've known him as being somebody that worked so hard and has done such a good job.

Meanwhile, in a series of tweets, Acosta on Tuesday publicly defend himself on the issue.

"The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence. 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. "Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice."

The labor secretary's comments sparked immediate backlash—including from Miami Herald journalist Julie K. Brown, who has reported extensively on the evidence that Acosta's office was faced with when it struck a deal with Esptein's lawyers and co-authored the newspaper's Monday night editorial that argued Acosta "has to go."

In the first piece for the Herald's "Perversion of Justice" series last November, Brown wrote, "This is the story of how Epstein, bolstered by unlimited funds and represented by a powerhouse legal team, was able to manipulate the criminal justice system, and how his accusers, still traumatized by their pasts, believe they were betrayed by the very prosecutors who pledged to protect them."

In an article for Splinter Tuesday, Rafi Schwartz referenced the Herald's reporting on the agreement and accused Acosta of "scrambling to cover his ass." Schwartz wrote that "Acosta is willfully ignoring the fact that, by negotiating a non-prosecution agreement in which the terms of the deal were kept secret from the victims, he likely violated the Crime Victims' Rights Act. That Epstein was not 'more fully' brought to justice in 2008 was, in other words, the direct result of Acosta's deliberate and potentially criminal actions."

Schwartz also highlighted the mounting demands for Acosta's swift exit from the administration. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) said in a floor speech Tuesday that Acosta should resign or Trump should fire him. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), and Kamala Harris (Calif.) —who are all seeking their party's nomination for president—also called on the labor secretary to step down.

Several other Democrats in Congress added their voices to that chorus:

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