President Donald Trump distanced himself Tuesday from former acquaintance Jeffrey Epstein and backed his labor secretary as demands increased for Alex Acosta’s resignation over a lenient plea agreement he negotiated years ago with the accused sex trafficker.
Speaking to reporters in the White House, Trump said he “feels badly” for Acosta, who broke months of silence Tuesday on Epstein’s 2008 non-prosecution agreement. Acosta took to Twitter to argue that New York prosecutors are now able to “more fully bring [Epstein] to justice” thanks to new information.
“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 tweeted.
Trump, who was once Epstein’s neighbor in Palm Beach and flew aboard his private plane, told reporters that he hasn’t spoken to Epstein in 15 years — around the time that Epstein was first accused of molesting underage girls.
“Well I knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him. He was a fixture in Palm Beach,” said Trump, whose pictures with Epstein have been repeatedly aired on cable news networks since Epstein was arrested Saturday at Teterboro airport in New Jersey.
Trump told New York Magazine in 2002 that Epstein was “a terrific guy,” who “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.” But he said Tuesday that they had a falling out and hadn’t spoken in 15 years.
“I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you,” Trump said.
Epstein, 66, now faces charges of conspiracy and sex trafficking of minors in New York, where prosecutors say he manipulated dozens of underage girls into giving nude massages and participating in sex acts. Epstein pleaded not guilty Monday, and remains in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Lower Manhattan awaiting a bond hearing.
If convicted of the charges, Epstein faces up to 45 years in prison.
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In her year-long investigation of Palm Beach multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein, Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown tracked down more than 60 women who said they were victims of abuse and revealed the full story behind the sweetheart deal cut by Epstein’s powerhouse legal team.
Since the Herald published ‘Perversion of Justice’ in November 2018, a federal judge ruled the non-prosecution agreement brokered by then South Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta was illegal, Epstein was arrested on sex trafficking charges in New York state, Acosta resigned as U.S. Secretary of Labor, and Epstein killed himself in his Manhattan jail cell.
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In comparison, Epstein served only 13 months of an 18-month jail sentence in Palm Beach County after Acosta — at the time the U.S. Attorney of Florida’s Southern District — prosecuted him in South Florida. As detailed in the Miami Herald series Perversion of Justice, Acosta set aside a 53-count federal indictment and agreed to allow Epstein to plead guilty to state prostitution charges involving girls under the age of 18.
The non-prosecution agreement granted Epstein and unnamed associates immunity. After he entered his state court plea, the Palm Beach County jail allowed him to be picked up by his valet six days a week and spend up to 10 hours a day at his downtown West Palm Beach office, entertaining visitors while deputies on his payroll provided security.
Acosta’s deal — which he deliberately kept secret from Epstein’s accusers at the insistence of Epstein’s lawyers — is now the subject of an ongoing Department of Justice probe and the subject of calls for his resignation by Democratic presidential candidates and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The U.S. House of Representatives has the option of initiating impeachment proceedings against Acosta, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday that Acosta’s fate is “up to the president.”
Asked whether Acosta should quit or be fired, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would “defer to the president.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who introduced Acosta during his confirmation hearing, said in an interview in Washington Tuesday that the Justice review of Epstein’s plea agreement should help determine whether Acosta was doing Epstein a favor and whether other senior members of the Justice Department also signed off on the agreement.
“Epstein is clearly a sick pig,” Rubio said, pivoting to what he sees as the crux of the controversy around the plea deal. “Was it a difficult prosecutorial decision that was made at the time given the evidence, the number of witnesses at the time? Or was it a decision that was made on the basis of political influence? And that’s what we’re hoping the Department of Justice’s review of it will show.”
Trump defended Acosta Tuesday, calling him “an excellent secretary of labor.” The president said if someone re-examined the decisions made 10 years ago by any prosecutor or judge, “you would probably find that they wish they maybe did it a different way.”
“You’re talking about a long time ago. I think it was a decision made not by him but by a lot of people, so we’re looking at it very carefully,” Trump said before crowing about the economy. “I feel very badly, actually, for Secretary Acosta, because I’ve known him as somebody who has worked very hard and has done such a great job. I feel very badly about that whole situation. But we’re going to be looking at that and looking at it very closely.”
Acosta, who has said little since the Herald’s Perversion of Justice series detailed how Epstein’s plea deal was negotiated, also spoke out Tuesday. The former dean of Florida International University’s law school said he’s happy to see New York prosecutors go after Epstein again now that they have “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,” he tweeted.
It’s unclear what new evidence prosecutors in New York may have had in filing an indictment that was unsealed Monday.
Investigators who raided Epstein’s Manhattan townhouse Saturday to serve a search warrant — around the same time as Epstein’s arrest at the airport after arriving by private jet from Paris — say they discovered a slew of photographs of what appeared to be nude underage girls, with some of the images stashed inside a safe. The feds have told reporters that they believe Epstein may have abused hundreds of girls in both Florida and New York.
But the unsealed indictment is based off of allegations from 2002 through 2005, prior to the plea deal granted by Acosta’s office. The indictment lists three unnamed victims, two of whom are based in Florida and a third in New York. It’s unclear if any of the girls were involved in the Florida investigation, which included allegations from nearly 40 underage victims.
On the few occasions he has addressed the Epstein matter, Acosta has asserted that he secured the harshest punishment available in 2008.
McClatchy DC reporter Lesley Clark and Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown contributed to this report.