Facing calls for his resignation, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta held a press conference today in Washington to address his handling of the 2007 case against Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire sex offender.
It didn’t go well.
Acosta, then a U.S. attorney in Florida, oversaw a sweetheart deal for Epstein, which required him to register as a sex offender and sentenced him to 13 months in prison. Epstein was allowed 12 hours of work release from the prison, six days a week. After a lengthy Miami Herald investigation was published last year, federal prosecutors in New York brought new charges against Epstein this week. That has placed renewed scrutiny on Acosta.
During the nearly hour-long press conference, Acosta declined several opportunities to apologize to Epstein’s alleged victims. Instead, he offered lawyerly, mild answers about his investigation, in essence arguing that while the deal the government cut with Epstein was bad, it was much better than what state prosecutors were requesting, and was better than nothing.
In the most astonishing moment of the press conference, Acosta seemed to shift the blame for Epstein’s light sentence onto the alleged victims for not speaking out. Asked what he’d tell those victims, Acosta said, “The message is you need to come forward. I heard this morning that another victim came forward and made horrendous, horrendous allegations, allegations that should never happen to any woman, much less a young girl. And as victims come forward, these cases can be brought and they can be brought by the federal government, they can be brought by state attorneys, and they will be brought.”
It’s easy to see why victims wouldn’t take that very seriously. Federal prosecutors in Florida had no shortage of allegations with which to work. As The New York Times noted in a profile of the Herald reporter Julie K. Brown, “Early in the process, she received a heavily redacted police report that was more than 100 pages long and mentioned more than 100 Jane Does.” Brown began working from that list and produced the series of stories that the federal prosecutors in New York credited with jump-starting their new charges.
Victims complained to the Herald that they were not aware of Epstein’s deal, which prevented them from appearing in court to protest it. Acosta argued during his press conference that this was done to protect the victims in future attempts to collect restitution from Epstein. He also said blame for Epstein’s work release should land on state courts.
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Yet even if one accepts Acosta’s insistence that he himself is blameless, the defenses he offered also demonstrate why victims have been so reluctant to come forward against a powerful man like Epstein, and why Acosta’s complaint about their reticence is so galling.
The remarks will likely play poorly in the court of public opinion, but Acosta’s press conference was reportedly aimed at an audience of one: the president. It was a chance for the secretary to impress Donald Trump. (Acosta insisted he has a strong relationship with both Trump and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.) Predicting Trump’s actions is a fool’s errand, but Acosta’s careful, bland approach to the press conference seems far away from the fiery mien that Trump has favored in the past.
Perhaps Acosta’s refusal to apologize will win him some credit with the president—but it’s unlikely to impress those who, as minors, were allegedly sexually abused by Epstein.