NEW YORK -- Insisting he got the best deal he could at the time, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta on Wednesday defended his handling of a sex-trafficking case involving now-jailed financier Jeffrey Epstein as he tried to stave off intensifying Democratic calls for his resignation.
"Facts are important and facts are being overlooked," Acosta told a news conference at Labor Department headquarters, where he retraced steps federal prosecutors took in the case a decade ago when he was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. Acosta said state authorities planned to go after Epstein with charges that would have resulted in no jail time until his office intervened and pressed for tougher consequences.
Acosta is being assailed for his part in the secret 2008 plea deal he signed that let Epstein avoid federal prosecution on charges that he molested teenage girls. But he was unapologetic Wednesday as he declared his office did the best it could under the circumstances.
The deal Acosta helped broker has come under new and intense scrutiny after prosecutors in New York on Monday brought new child sex-trafficking charges alleging Epstein abused dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s, paying them hundreds of dollars in cash for massages, then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York. Epstein has pleaded not guilty to the charges; if convicted he could be imprisoned for the rest of his life.
Acosta said he welcomed the new case, saying of Epstein: "His acts are despicable." Earlier he defended himself on Twitter, crediting "new evidence and additional testimony" uncovered by prosecutors in New York for providing "an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice."
"The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence," he wrote.
Marc Short, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, also defended Acosta's conduct, telling reporters, "The reality is that the defense attorneys in that case actually tried to get Alex removed because they thought he was such an aggressive prosecutor in this case."
"As you heard Alex say yesterday, we welcome the fact that there is additional evidence that can be prosecuted," Short said. "The crimes are atrocities and certainly should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Trump has, so far, also defended Acosta, praising his work as labor secretary and saying he felt "very badly" for him "because I've known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job." Still, he said, he would be looking at the circumstances of the case "very closely."
Though Trump may have made the tagline "You're fired!" famous on his reality show "The Apprentice," he has shown a pattern of reluctance to fire even his most embattled aides. Trump, for instance, took months to dismiss Scott Pruitt as Environmental Protection Agency administrator despite a dizzying array of scandals, and allowed Jeff Sessions to remain as attorney general for more than a year even as he railed at and belittled him.
Trump typically gives his Cabinet secretaries the opportunity to defend themselves publicly in interviews and press conferences before deciding whether to pull the plug.
Trump, who had once praised Epstein as "a terrific guy," dissociated himself Tuesday from the wealthy hedge fund manager now charged with abusing minors, saying the two had a falling out 15 or so years ago and hadn't spoken since.
Democratic presidential contenders and party leaders want Acosta to resign or be fired over the 2008 deal that has struck many prosecutors as unusually lenient. Under the deal, Epstein pleaded guilty to lesser state charges, averting a possible life sentence if convicted, and served 13 months in a work-release program. He was also required to make payments to victims and register as a sex offender.
Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Jamie Raskin sent Acosta a letter Wednesday inviting him to testify July 23. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, welcomed that move, saying Acosta "has a disturbing record on sexual and human trafficking that stretches from the horribly permissive plea agreement he gave to Jeffrey Epstein, up to his time now as Labor Secretary."
Many Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have taken a wait-and-see approach. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said Tuesday that Acosta should hold a news conference to explain why he'd agreed to the plea bargain and answer all questions.
"Anybody who would look at this, just based on what's been reported, would have questions," Kennedy said. "That doesn't mean necessarily that there aren't answers." The Labor Department said Acosta planned to take questions as well as make a statement.