Trump praises Acosta as he faces growing calls to resign over earlier Epstein case
WASHINGTON — President Trump praised Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and on Tuesday said he felt ‘‘very badly’’ for him, as calls mounted for his Cabinet member to resign over his handling, as a US attorney, of an earlier sex-crimes case involving the billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Trump also said the White House would look closely at the circumstances surrounding a 2007 plea deal overseen by Acosta that a growing number of Democrats argued Tuesday was far too lenient on Epstein.
‘‘I feel very badly, actually, for Secretary Acosta because I’ve known him as being somebody who works so hard and has done such a good job,’’ Trump said of Acosta’s tenure as labor secretary. ‘‘I feel very badly about that whole situation, but we’re going to be looking at that, and looking at it very closely.’’
Shortly beforehand, Acosta said in a tweet that he was pleased that federal prosecutors in New York are pursing a new sex-trafficking case against Epstein involving minors.
‘‘The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence,’’ Acosta wrote on Twitter.
His tweet followed calls for him to resign by lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, as well as several Democratic presidential candidates, all of whom argued that he mishandled the earlier case as a US attorney.
During a floor speech Tuesday morning, Schumer said Trump should fire Acosta if he does not voluntarily step down after Monday’s indictment of Epstein.
The indictment has renewed scrutiny of a plea deal that led to two felony solicitation charges and 13 months in county jail for Epstein at a time when he had been facing the possibility of life in prison.
‘‘It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta’s ability to lead the Department of Labor,’’ Schumer said. ‘‘We cannot have as one of the leading appointed officials in America someone who has done this, plain and simple.’’
Schumer’s remarks echoed a tweet from Pelosi on Monday night in which she said Acosta needed to step down.
‘‘As US Attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice,’’ Pelosi said.
‘‘This was known by @POTUS when he appointed him to the cabinet,’’ she added, referring to Trump.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Pelosi seemed to rule out launching impeachment proceedings against Acosta.
‘‘It’s up to the president; it’s his Cabinet,’’ she told reporters. ‘‘We have a great deal of work to do here for the good of the American people, need to focus on that.’’
The earlier plea deal — about which Epstein’s victims were not informed — came while Acosta was a US attorney in Florida. At the time, he opted not to prosecute Epstein on federal sex trafficking charges but agreed to lesser counts.
On Monday, in the indictment issued in federal court in New York, Epstein faced charges resulting from allegations similar to those in the Florida case. The indictment says that ‘‘in both New York and Florida,’’ Epstein ‘‘perpetuated this abuse in similar ways.’’
During his remarks, Schumer also called on the Justice Department to make public its review of Acosta’s handling of the Epstein case and for Trump to explain his past statements about his relationship with Epstein.
In a 2002 magazine interview, Trump called Epstein a ‘‘terrific guy’’ and said he ‘‘likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.’’ Schumer noted that Epstein had appeared in the past at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach.
Trump told reporters that he knew Epstein from Palm Beach but that the two ‘‘had a falling out’’ about 15 years ago. Trump did not elaborate on what happened.
‘‘I was not a fan of his,’’ the president said of Epstein.
Meanwhile, he lavished praise on Acosta and said that many people can second-guess decisions they made years ago.
‘‘I can tell you that for two and a half years, he’s been just an excellent secretary of labor,’’ Trump said. ‘‘That fact is, he’s been a very good secretary of labor.’’
Trump also said he understood that Acosta did not reach a plea deal with Epstein on his own.
‘‘I do hear that there were a lot of people involved in that decision, not just him,’’ Trump said.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, called the accusations against Epstein ‘‘horrendous’’ and said he was glad ‘‘they are being pursued further.’’
But he said it was up to Trump to decide whether to retain Acosta as labor secretary.
‘‘He serves at the pleasure of the president, and I defer to the president,’’ McConnell said.
On Tuesday morning, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway gave no indication to reporters that Acosta would be leaving the Cabinet.
‘‘He’s doing a great job. I mean, look at the economy,’’ she said.
Conway also chided Pelosi for calling on Acosta to step down.
‘‘It’s classic her and her Democratic Party to not focus on the perpetrator at hand and instead focus on a member of the Trump administration,’’ she said. ‘‘They’re so obsessed with this president that they immediately go to Acosta rather then Jeffrey Epstein.’’