Hearing: Two of Jeffrey Epstein’s alleged victims, Michelle Licata (left) and Courtney Wild, leave the courthouse in New York. Photo: Getty
US President Donald Trump was on the back foot yesterday over the handling of a sex-trafficking case involving now-jailed billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Mr Trump said he will be looking “very closely” at the way the case was managed by Alex Acosta, who is now Mr Trump’s labour secretary.
But he also seemed to stand by his cabinet official, praising Mr Acosta’s performance on the job and saying he felt “very badly” for him.
As for Mr Epstein, Mr Trump – who had once praised the financier as “a terrific guy” – distanced himself from the hedge fund manager now charged with abusing minors, saying the two had had a falling-out 15 or so years ago.
“I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you,” Mr Trump said.
His comments came as a parade of Democratic presidential contenders and party leaders demanded that Mr Acosta, a former federal prosecutor in south Florida, resign or be fired over his role in a secret 2008 plea deal that let Mr Epstein avoid federal prosecution after allegations he molested teenage girls.
Mr Epstein pleaded not guilty to new child sex-trafficking charges. Federal prosecutors in New York accuse him of abusing dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s, paying them hundreds of dollars in cash for massages and then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York. He could face up to 45 years in prison if convicted.
Speaking to reporters, Mr Trump repeatedly praised Mr Acosta, calling him a “really great secretary of labour” and “very good” at his job. He suggested it was not unusual to find past mistakes if you look hard enough.
“You know, if you go back and look at everybody else’s decisions, whether it’s a US attorney, or an assistant US attorney or a judge, if you go back 12 or 15 years ago or 20 years ago and look at their past decisions, I would think you would probably find that they would wish they’d maybe did it a different way,” said Mr Trump.
In sympathetic words that seemed to echo his statements of support for then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who had been accused of sexual misconduct as a young man, Mr Trump also said he felt “very badly” for Mr Acosta “because I’ve known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job”.
Still, he said his administration would be going back to look “very closely” at the circumstances of the deal that allowed Mr Epstein to avoid prosecution on federal charges, plead guilty to lesser state charges and serve 13 months in jail, during which he was allowed to leave to go to his office during the day.
Mr Trump’s ex-press secretary Sarah Sanders had said in February that the White House was looking into Mr Acosta’s role in the settlement. The White House has not responded to repeated questions about whether there ever was such an investigation, and, if there was, what it found.
Mr Acosta himself weighed in on Twitter, ignoring the calls for his resignation and crediting the charges brought against Mr Epstein in New York to new evidence that “offers 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 tweeted.
On Capitol Hill, a slew of Democrats called for Mr Acosta’s resignation, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who accused him on Twitter of having “engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice”.
She said that it was “no surprise” Mr Trump was standing by Mr Acosta. “He knew about this when he nominated him for the cabinet,” she said. “It just goes to show.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Mr Trump should explain his previous comments praising Epstein.
“The president needs to answer for this, and ‘I don’t recall’ is not an acceptable answer in this case,” he said.