Acosta’s 72-hour failure to win back Trump

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White House

The prosecution scandal hit a labor secretary who had a lukewarm relationship with the president and was already on thin ice with many members of the White House staff.

Alexander Acosta’s last-ditch effort to save his job as labor secretary started in a Trumpian way — with a tweet thread defending his lenient plea deal with wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade ago. A day later, he delivered his defense in an unusual and exhaustive press conference on live TV in which he conveyed the White House’s confidence in him — as President Donald Trump and his aides followed along.

It wasn’t enough. The press coverage kept coming, some of it in the president’s preferred news outlets tying Trump to Epstein over the past two decades even more closely than previously known. On Friday — two days after Acosta’s press conference, three days after his Twitter explanation and four days after Epstein appeared in federal court to face new charges — the labor secretary stepped in front of the cameras with Trump one last time to announce he would no longer be a distraction.

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Trump was initially satisfied by Acosta’s defense at the press conference, three people familiar with the situation said, and wasn’t inclined to ditch a Cabinet secretary over such an old case tied to Acosta’s service as a U.S. attorney in Florida more than a decade ago.

But over the last couple of days the president saw the negative press and didn’t like it — a torrent of damaging news coverage aimed not just at Acosta but at Trump himself, who had a decades-long relationship with Epstein before, in the president’s telling, they had a falling out.

“POTUS is not a fan of bad press, especially when other people make him look bad,” one person said.

Acosta came newly under fire for the 2008 plea deal after Epstein was re-arrested July 6 in New York City and charged with sex trafficking. Under the earlier plea agreement, Epstein served only 13 months of an 18-month term and was permitted daily furloughs to go to the office. Epstein also was required to register as a sex offender and to pay restitution to his underage victims.

The week’s events led to a growing sense in the White House and the Labor Department that the scandal was unlikely to blow over, with ongoing cases against Epstein, and would ultimately be used as a brickbat by the president’s enemies to bludgeon him.

“It’s not the worst exit under the circumstances. In fact, it might be the best he could possibly do,” said a former U.S. official who remains close to both men.

Trump sought to place the decision elsewhere when he informed reporters Friday morning of Acosta’s departure — suggesting Acosta had wilted under the glare of hostile news coverage. Those close to him said it was an attempt to show strength. The president has typically talked of dismissing cabinet secretaries of his own volition but rarely revealed that negative press has forced his hand.

“This was him, not me,” Trump said as Acosta stood beside him outside the White House.

Trump, who saw Acosta largely as a source of favorable monthly statistics about unemployment and job growth, called Acosta “a great Labor secretary not a good one” and “a tremendous talent. He’s a Hispanic man, he went to Harvard, a great student.” Trump indicated that he was satisfied with Acosta’s explanation for the plea deal in Wednesday’s news conference, saying, “He explained it.”

At the White House on Friday, Acosta told reporters: “Over the last week I’ve seen a lot of coverage of the Department of Labor. And what I have not seen is the incredible job creation that we’ve seen in this economy – more than 5 million jobs, I haven’t seen that. … I do not think it is right and fair for this administration’s Labor Department to have Epstein as the focus, rather than the incredible economy that we have today.”

By the time the controversy hit, Acosta had another problem that left him with a weak safety net to weather the crisis: a track record of friction with Trump aides.

The labor secretary, who never had a warm personal relationship with the president, has had interactions in recent months with top White House officials including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, over the perceived slow pace of deregulation at the department.

Known for his careful demeanor, Acosta was privately accused by White House officials and business groups of slow-walking deregulatory efforts, such as policies on overtime pay and shielding franchised companies from legal liabilities.

It took two years for DOL to issue a regulation outlining a program for privately led apprenticeships, a delay that irked the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump. A former DOL official told POLITICO in June that she was “fed up” with Acosta.

Mulvaney curtailed Acosta’s rule-making authority shortly after taking office in January, requiring three White House aides to sit in on all the agency’s regulatory meetings. Then in May, the White House took the unusual step of ordering Acosta to fire his chief of staff, Nick Geale, after an internal review concluded that Geale’s interactions with employees — including frequent profanity-laced tirades — were damaging morale inside the agency.

POLITICO reported Tuesday that Mulvaney was privately urging the president to dismiss Acosta given the continuing drip of information from the case.

Even as White House aides abandoned Acosta, the president himself remained content, in large part because of the favorable monthly employment statistics typically reported by DOL. Acosta went out of his way to praise the strength of the economy on social media, often mentioning the president by name.

“I feel very badly, actually, for Secretary Acosta,“ Trump said July 9. “I’ve known him as somebody that works so hard and does such a good job. I feel very badly about that whole situation.”

It’s an ignominious end for the 50-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer, a son of middle-class Cuban immigrants who made a name for himself in conservative social circles. Acosta led his resignation letter with mention of his parents and their desire to secure “the best opportunities for their son and grandchildren.”

“He’s been careful for his whole life, going to the right schools and connecting to the right people,” said a former administration official. “And now he’s just going to be remembered for Jeffrey Epstein.”

Things began to unravel for Acosta in November, when the Miami Herald published a lengthy reexamination of the case, and accelerated in February, when a district court judge ruled that the 2008 plea deal violated the Crime Victims Rights Act because Acosta never revealed the terms of the deal to Epstein’s victims before it was finalized. Also in February, the Justice Department opened an investigation into whether Acosta’s prosecution team committed professional misconduct in its handling the Epstein case.

Key details of Acosta’s plea agreement with Epstein were known to senators at the time Acosta was confirmed as labor secretary, though initially these seemed minor compared to domestic abuse allegations against Trump’s first pick for labor secretary, Andy Puzder. Acosta defended his actions at a congressional hearing this past April, saying he entered the case only after a state grand jury recommended that only one charge be filed against Epstein — a course of action that would have resulted in no jail time for Epstein, no restitution to victims, and no registration as a sex offender.

“At the end of the day Mr. Epstein went to jail,” Acosta said. “Mr. Epstein was incarcerated, he registered as a sex offender, the world was put on notice that he was a sex offender, and the victims received restitution.“

Acosta has suggested that he and his attorneys were worn down by Epstein’s all-star legal team, which included Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor who investigated the Monica Lewinsky scandal during Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s. Among other tactics, the Epstein lawyers investigated the prosecutors looking for “personal pecadillos,” Acosta wrote in 2011 to journalist Conchita Sarnoff, whose 2016 book “TrafficKing” chronicled the Epstein prosecution. Acosta called these efforts “a year-long assault on the prosecution and the prosecutors.”

Acosta has also said that the full extent of Epstein’s alleged abuse wasn’t known at the time he struck the plea deal.

“Had these additional statements and evidence been known,” he wrote in a letter to Sarnoff, “the outcome may have been different.”