Alex Acosta resigns as labor secretary amid scrutiny over Jeffrey Epstein case
WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary Alex Acosta’s resignation Friday amid the mushrooming Jeffrey Epstein investigation made him the latest in a growing list of President Trump’s Cabinet members to depart under a cloud of scandal, plunging an administration that has struggled with record turnover into further upheaval.
Trump announced Acosta’s departure in a morning appearance together on the South Lawn, telling reporters that his labor secretary had chosen to step down a day after defending himself in a contentious news conference over his role as a US attorney a decade ago in a deal with Epstein that allowed the financier to plead guilty to lesser offenses in a sex-crimes case involving underage girls.
The president expressed regret over Acosta’s decision, calling him a ‘‘great labor secretary’’ and saying he had reassured the secretary that ‘‘you don’t have to do this.’’
‘‘It was him, not me,’’ Trump said, though behind the scenes he had grown uncertain about Acosta’s future, according to administration aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
In another development Friday, prosecutors alleged that, soon after The Miami Herald began reporting on his favorable treatment by law enforcement in an early 2000s sex crimes investigation, Epstein paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to people investigators had identified as possible coconspirators.
Prosecutors alleged the payments might have been meant to influence the recipients.
The prosecutors wrote they had obtained financial records showing that in November 2018, just two days after The Herald reported on a favorable plea arrangement Epstein received, Epstein wired $100,000 to someone identified as possible coconspirator in the case. Three days after that, he wired $250,000 to another person identified as a possible coconspirator, prosecutors wrote.
At the White House, meanwhile, Acosta, the sole Hispanic member of Trump’s Cabinet, said the intense media focus on his role in Epstein’s case had threatened to become a distraction that would undermine his work for the administration. Trump has sought to promote robust job growth and record low unemployment in his appeal to workers and organized labor as he ramps up his reelection campaign.
But Trump, who as a private businessman had socialized with Epstein in the early 2000s, has come under renewed scrutiny for his ties to the disgraced financier and faced fresh questions over his decision to hire Acosta. Trump has said he had a falling-out with Epstein and cut off their relationship 15 years ago.
‘‘I don’t think it is right and fair for this administration’s Labor Department to have Epstein as the focus rather than the incredible economy we have today,’’ said Acosta, whose resignation will take effect in a week. ‘‘It would be selfish for me to stay in the position and continue talking about a case that is 12 years old.’’
Trump said that Patrick Pizzella, the deputy secretary of labor, will become acting secretary of the department.
Acosta’s rapid downfall closed a 2½-year tenure that began only after Trump’s first choice for labor secretary, fast food mogul Andrew Puzder, withdrew from consideration amid questions from Senate Democrats over potential conflicts of interest and his policy positions.
The president once boasted of hiring only ‘‘the best people,’’ but his administration has seen a stunning number of departures.
In all, 13 Cabinet members named by Trump have departed over 30 months, not counting those who served in an acting capacity, and several others left under ethics scandals, including Tom Price at Health and Human Services, David Shulkin at Veterans Affairs, Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ryan Zinke at Interior.
Ronny Jackson, whom Trump nominated to replace Shulkin, had his name pulled by the White House after allegations of mismanagement during his time as the White House physician. And last month, Patrick Shanahan dropped out of contention to become the permanent defense secretary after revelations over his marriage and family background.
Several others, including Jeff Sessions at Justice, Jim Mattis at the Pentagon, Kirstjen Nielsen at Homeland Security, and James Comey at the FBI, have been forced out amid increasing acrimony in their personal relationships with Trump or the president’s frustration with their performances.
Trump has struggled to keep up with the frequent vacancies, and he has moved in several cases to allow acting secretaries, who do not require Senate confirmation.
Still, Acosta’s departure seemed almost inevitable, coming amid mounting calls for his resignation on Capitol Hill.
The 2008 plea deal in Florida that Acosta was involved in came under renewed scrutiny in light of Epstein’s indictment Monday on more child sex-trafficking charges in New York.
Eleven years ago, Epstein, 66, had signed a nonprosecution agreement with federal authorities and pleaded guilty in state court to felony solicitation of underage girls.
During his 13-month sentence in a Palm Beach, Fla., jail, Epstein was allowed to work out of his office six days a week. As U.S. attorney, Acosta approved the deal. A federal judge this year ruled that prosecutors violated the rights of victims by failing to notify them of an agreement not to bring federal charges.
At a news conference Wednesday, Acosta defended his role, stating that a state’s attorney in Palm Beach County was preparing to allow Epstein to plead to a single charge of solicitation that did not make a reference to the age of the female minor. That deal would have carried no jail time and would not have required Epstein to register as a sex offender.
‘‘We wanted to see Epstein go to jail,’’ Acosta said. ‘‘He needed to go to jail.’’
The former state’s attorney for Palm Beach County at the time of the Epstein plea deal released a statement disputing Acosta’s account.
Acosta was disliked by acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who told others he was ineffective at implementing the administration’s deregulation agenda, the officials said.
But Trump did not originally want to be seen as cutting ties with him over a decade-old episode.
Trump told reporters he thought Acosta had ‘‘explained’’ the plea deal during his news conference.
‘‘He made a deal that people were happy with, and 12 years later they weren’t happy with it,’’ Trump said. ‘‘You’ll have to figure that out.’’