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Alexander Acosta Steps Down As Labor Secretary Amid Epstein Controversy

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta testifies during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on April 3.
Al Drago
Getty Images
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta testifies during a House Appropriations Committee hearing on April 3.

Updated at 5:05 p.m. ET

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is stepping down after criticism over his role in a nonprosecution deal reached years ago with the well-connected businessman accused of sex crimes, Jeffrey Epstein.

Acosta appeared on Friday at the White House with President Trump and announced his resignation.

"I do not think it is fair for this administration's Labor Department to have Epstein as its focus rather than the incredible economy we have today," Acosta said. "The right thing was to step aside."

Acosta said his departure would be effective in one week, when Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella is expected to take over as acting head of the department.

Trump said Acosta had called him early Friday to convey his decision and the choice to step down had been Acosta's. The president praised Acosta as a "fantastic secretary of Labor" and "a tremendous talent. He's a Hispanic man; he went to Harvard."

Top Democrats in Congress had called for Acosta's removal in the wake of new charges against multimillionaire Epstein by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.

Epstein is accused of sexually abusing underage girls as young as 14, some of whom he allegedly recruited in what prosecutors called a sex trafficking network.

In 2008, then-U.S. Attorney Acosta oversaw an agreement that permitted Epstein to plead guilty to some related charges but which critics have since called far too lenient.

The Miami Herald detailed Acosta's handling of the Epstein case, and the account has drawn condemnations from victims' advocates and others.

Acosta gave his own account of the circumstances of that agreement in a news conference earlier this week. He said if his office hadn't stepped in, Epstein would have enjoyed an even lighter punishment at the hands of state or local authorities.

Acosta said it's always possible to look back and wish arrangements had been made differently, but he said his handling of the Epstein matter as U.S. attorney had worked out as well as it could have under the circumstances at the time.

Change in style atop Labor Department

Trump stressed how sorry he was to see Acosta go, but some corporate lobbyists and White House officials are excited about the change.

Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, among other White House officials, had grown frustrated with Acosta for not acting fast enough to roll back Obama-era regulations, according to sources familiar with the concerns of Mulvaney and other White House officials.

That is expected to change under Pizzella. He's a hard-charging former lobbyist who understands business interests, understands the department and is willing to push to get things done, supporters believe.

"The key difference between Acosta and Pizzella was that Acosta is a thinker and Pizzella is a doer," said Paul DeCamp, who ran the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division under President George W. Bush administration.

"Acosta is very contemplative. Very slow. He really wants to be cautious before proceeding with anything. Where Pizzella is more decisive, more willing to make a choice and execute on that choice. That aspect of Pizzella's make-up will endear him to Mulvaney and others in ways that did not work out to Acosta."

At the same time Alex Passantino, who was the department's acting wage and hour administrator under President George W. Bush, and who worked with Pizzella, said it's important to remember that this remains the Trump administration — and not the Acosta or Pizzella administration.

Pizzella will not be able to step into the role and make sweeping changes right away.

But Passantino said Pizzella is a good manager and understands the department. He knows the challenges of regulatory changes, the checks that must be made, what it takes to move the process along and how to identify and confront challenges that arise.

"Pat is good at understanding the department and managing the many personalities and issues within the department," Passantino said.

Scrutiny from Congress

House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings invited Acosta to testify on July 23 about the nonprosecution agreement.

It wasn't immediately clear on Friday whether the Oversight Committee would continue to ask Acosta to appear given that he will be out of government.

Cummings and other House Democrats also sent a letter to the Office of Professional Responsibility at the Justice Department requesting a briefing about their investigation of the matter.

"There are significant concerns with Secretary Acosta's actions in approving an extremely favorable deal for an alleged sexual predator while concealing the deal from the victims of Mr. Epstein's crimes, which a judge found violated the Crime Victims' Rights Act," the lawmakers wrote.

In his news conference on July 10, Acosta said he was "pleased" that the Southern District of New York was moving forward with new charges.

"His acts are despicable," Acosta said. "Epstein's actions absolutely deserve a stiffer sentence."

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who pushed the Justice Department to investigate Acosta's non-prosecution deal with Epstein, said in a statement on Friday that Acosta's departure should not mean this story is over.

"Today cannot be the end of attention to the horrific crimes or the pathetically short sentence of Jeffrey Epstein," Sasse said. "This story can't just drift away because this has never been about politics but is instead about justice. The young women who were victimized by Epstein's trafficking network deserve confidence that this will never happen again."

Acosta was confirmed to President Trump's Cabinet in 2017 with a bipartisan vote of 60-38. During his time as head of the Labor Department, he has cut regulations and pushed for the expansion of apprenticeship programs.

Trump defended Acosta's role as labor secretary on July 9, saying he has been "really, really great."

"The rest of it, we will have to look at," the president added.

Acosta said on July 10 that his relationship with Trump is "outstanding."

NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.