Alex Acosta, Donald Trump’s secretary of labor, has resigned amid a growing furore around a so-called “sweetheart deal” he gave to multi-millionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein in 2008.
On Monday, Epstein was arrested in New York and charged with sex trafficking of minors. Prosecutors say he operated a vast sex trafficking ring, in which he sexually abused dozens of children. Federal agents said they found a “vast trove” of sexual material, including pictures of young girls that were stored on CDs and kept in a safe at his Manhattan townhouse.
The new charges have brought back into the spotlight the fact that Acosta, who was then serving as the senior federal prosecutor in Miami, had been responsible for prosecuting Epstein when police uncovered what was described as a “cult-like” network of young girls – and allowed Epstein to enter what many critics have called a “sweetheart” plea deal.
At his mansion, Palm Beach police said in 2007, Epstein coerced girls both into performing sex acts themselves and into finding new victims for him. The federal indictment against him was 53 pages long.
But Acosta offered Epstein a “non-prosecution agreement” that served to shut down the ongoing FBI probe into his activities, and allowed him to serve just 13 months in prison.
Even more unusually, the Miami Herald pointed out in a bombshell 2018 investigation into the case, the deal Acosta not only granted Epstein and four accomplices named in the Miami indictment immunity from federal criminal charges, but also included wording that granted immunity to “any potential co-conspirators”.
The Herald, which identified 80 women who allege that Epstein sexually abused them, also noted that as Labor Secretary, Acosta was placed in charge of overseeing human trafficking laws for the United States.
In April of this year Acosta claimed that without the 2008 non-prosecution agreement, which allowed Epstein to spend his 13-month sentence in a private wing away from other inmates and to leave prison to attend his office six days a week, “[Epstein] was going to get off with no jail time or restitution”.
The optics of the deal look disastrous for the Trump administration and the case may have powerful political ramifications. A well-known New York and Miami socialite, Epstein has been linked both to Donald Trump (who called him a “terrific guy” in an interview with New York magazine in 2002), Bill Clinton, and the UK’s Prince Andrew.
On Tuesday, Acosta tweeted: “The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence.” This did little to dampen the scandal, and he announced his resignation on Friday.
In reaction to the news on Friday morning, Trump struck a defiant pose. “Alex Acosta informed me this morning that he felt the constant drumbeat of press about a prosecution which took place under his watch more than 12 years ago was bad for the Administration, which he so strongly believes in, and he graciously tendered his resignation,” he tweeted. “Alex was a great Secretary of Labor and his service is truly appreciated.”
But Acosta’s resignation is unlikely to impede the story. Epstein entered a plea of not guilty at a hearing in New York on Monday, so the case will now go to trial – which will likely be a huge public spectacle, and could become a political firestorm.