WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday he will be looking "very carefully" at how his labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, agreed to a light sentence in a child sex trafficking case against billionaire hedge fund manager Jeffrey Epstein more than a decade ago when he was a federal prosecutor in Florida.
As demands from lawmakers for Acosta's resignation grow in Washington, Trump defended him, saying he has been "an excellent secretary of labor" for the last 2 1/2 years. The U.S. leader said that "many people" were involved in the Epstein case, but that in hindsight "what happened 12, 15 years ago...I would think maybe they wish they'd done it a different way."
"We'll be looking at it very carefully," the U.S. leader said.
Trump spoke a day after federal prosecutors in New York brought new sex trafficking charges against the 66-year-old Epstein that could, if he is convicted, send him to prison for 45 years. Acosta, when he was the U.S. attorney in Miami, agreed in 2008 to an Epstein guilty plea agreement under which he served 13 months in a local stockade, but was freed half of most days to go to work at his office.
Two decades ago, Trump, years before he entered politics, posed for pictures with Epstein at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump in 2002 called Epstein a "terrific guy." "He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side."
But on Tuesday, sitting alongside the Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, at a White House meeting, Trump said of Epstein, "I was not a fan of his." Trump said he had not spoken with Epstein in 15 years and had a "falling out" with him, but did not offer details of any dispute.
Acosta has defended his deal with Epstein, but said he is pleased that federal prosecutors in New York have brought new charges against him.
"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 said on Twitter. "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. Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice."
Several lawmakers, including both leading congressional Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, have called for Acosta's resignation for his handling of the Epstein case in Florida, but so has a staunch Republican supporter of Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. The White House has resisted.
Schumer said Epstein would have been behind bars for years were it not for the "sweetheart" deal agreed to by Acosta. Pelosi accused Acosta of engaging "in an unconscionable agreement" with Epstein "kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice.” A judge has ruled that prosecutors wrongly failed to tell Epstein's victims about their intention to resolve the case with a light sentence.
Pelosi said Acosta's role in the Epstein case was known by Trump "when he appointed him to the cabinet."
Cruz said he agreed Acosta should quit, calling Epstein's conduct "despicable" and that "everyone who participated should be vigorously prosecuted."
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway pushed back on Pelosi' call for Acosta's resignation, saying, "It's classic her and her Democratic Party to not focus on the perpetrator in hand, instead of focus on a member of the Trump administration. They’re so obsessed with this president that they immediately go to Alex Acosta rather than Jeffrey Epstein. As far as I can see, Jeffrey Epstein is the one who allegedly ... sure looks a strong evidence to me is touching, if not raping young girls.”
In Monday's indictment, Geoffrey Berman, a federal prosecutor in New York, accused Epstein of allegedly paying the girls hundreds of dollars for nude or partially nude massages from 2002 to 2005 that "increasingly were sexual in nature" at his mansion on New York's Upper East Side and at his estate in Palm Beach.
The prosecutor said Epstein often paid some of the victims, some as young as 14, to recruit other underage girls that he then also abused.
Despite the fact that the allegations against Epstein stem from incidents that occurred more than a decade ago, Berman said, "We want to make sure (the accusers) have their day in court by bringing these charges." In a court appearance, Epstein pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Epstein is a well-connected financier whose friends also included former President Bill Clinton and Britain's Prince Andrew, and numerous other celebrities.