How Alex Acosta explained his handling of controversial Epstein case

JUDY WOODRUFF: For nearly an hour today, the
U.S. secretary of labor, Alex Acosta, answered
questions about a plea deal he brokered as
a federal prosecutor in Florida more than
a decade ago.
At the time, financier Jeffrey Epstein received
a jail sentence that critics have called unusually
Earlier this week, federal prosecutors in
New York brought new charges of sex trafficking
against him.
Today, Acosta defended his handling of the
2008 case.
ALEXANDER ACOSTA, U.S. Secretary of Labor:
We believe that we proceeded appropriately
that, based on the evidence — and not just
my opinion, but I have shared the affidavit
— based on the evidence, there was value
to getting a guilty plea and having him register.
I understand what the victims say.
And I’m not here to say that I can stand in
their shoes or that I can address their concerns.
I’m here to say we did what we did because
we wanted to see Epstein go to jail.
He needed to go to jail.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Here with us now to delve into
Secretary Acosta’s comments and other developments
in the Jeffrey Epstein case are our own Yamiche
Alcindor, who was at Secretary Acosta’s news
conference this afternoon, and Jessica Roth.
She was previously a federal prosecutor in
the Southern District of New York, where Epstein’s
case is being tried.
She is now at the Yeshiva University Cardozo
School of Law.
Hello to both of you.
Yamiche, I’m going to turn to you first.
You were in the room today when Secretary
Acosta was answering those questions, as we
said, for about an hour.
Here is what he said when you asked him about
his message to victims of Jeffrey Epstein.
ALEXANDER ACOSTA: As to a message to the victims,
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.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, Yamiche, what more,
what did he add to what we just heard?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, Secretary Acosta really
held this press conference because he wanted
to offer a full-throated defense of his handling
of this controversial 2008 plea agreement
with Epstein.
And what he said essentially was that victims
need to have their responsibility to come
My question to him was, do you have anything
to say to these victims?
Do you have anything to say to the president,
who I’m told encouraged you to hold this press
And Acosta said he wasn’t trying to send a
signal to the president.
But my sources tell me the president wanted
him to be out in front, talking to cameras
today, talking to reporters, because he wanted
to see how he would handle the backlash and
the criticism that he’s been getting all week.
It’s also important to note that Acosta used
some of the same reasoning that the president
used yesterday when he defended the labor
He said today that this was a long time ago,
and this case might have been handled differently
in 2019.
He also said that victims are viewed differently.
But he didn’t say, I regret what I did.
He didn’t say he would do anything differently.
And he also didn’t offer an apology.
Instead, what we have is Acosta really coming
forward and saying, I did the best that I
could do.
And, essentially, he did nod to the idea that
the president wanted him to talk about this.
But we’re going to have to watch and see kind
of how this moves forward.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, before I get to some of
the particulars of what he said, we know a
number of Democrats, anti-trafficking groups
have been calling on him to resign from office.
Yamiche, what did Acosta say today about his
ability to do his job?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Secretary Acosta said he
did the best that he could do and, as a result,
he can be trusted to protect human trafficking
He also handed out some court documents where
he was essentially making the case that the
victims in 2008 were reluctant to come forward.
He also made the case that some of the victims
weren’t told about the plea agreement because
prosecutors were trying to get some sort of
monetary compensation for them.
But, essentially, he didn’t really say, look,
this was a sweetheart deal, I would do things
There are a lot of people that are very angry
at this.
Jeffrey Epstein was able to go in and out
of prison, still go to work during this plea
agreement, this time that he spent in prison.
So, Secretary Acosta didn’t really go forward
and really answer the question of how people
should view that specific plea agreement.
So I think there’s still some questions on
whether or not Secretary Acosta will be answering
those questions, because we know that this
backlash is going to continue.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Jessica Roth, let me bring
you into this.
What did you make of his answers today that
he spent an hour trying to or at least answering
reporters’ questions?
What did you make of that?
And did he answer your own questions about
that plea agreement back in 2008?
JESSICA ROTH, Yeshiva University Cardozo School
of Law: So I thought he spent a lot of time
at the press conference today shifting blame
to other people.
He seemed to be blaming the Florida state
prosecutors for not having pursued serious
enough charges in their own case, and essentially
asserted that but for his office’s involvement,
Jeffrey Epstein wouldn’t have pled guilty
to a state felony and wouldn’t have been subject
to any prison time or to having to register
as a sex offender.
So, in a sense, he was shifting blame to the
state prosecutors who initiated the case,
saying they weren’t tough enough in the first
He also talked about even the Florida state
grand jury not having returned serious enough
charges in the first instance, so shifting
blame to the state prosecutor, to the grand
jury, and also to the victims, in talking,
as Yamiche said, about how some of them were
not willing to come forward.
And he talked about how they were inconsistent
in their statements.
So there was shifting of blame there.
There was also some sharing of blame, in the
sense of trying to make it clear that this
was a group decision within his office, including
the line prosecutors, for the ultimate deal
that was reached.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And you also had told us you
had a question about the fact that he met
— Acosta met privately, when this plea deal
was being worked out, with Epstein’s attorney.
Did he have an adequate explanation for that
JESSICA ROTH: He did address that today.
He really downplayed the significance of that
He acknowledged that the meeting happened
one-on-one at a hotel.
He explained that the reason he had it one-on-one
at the hotel was because, I believe Acosta
said he was at a conference, and it was 7:00
And he said you don’t office open, a U.S.
attorney’s office at 7:00 a.m. to have a breakfast
You have it where you are.
And he said that the meeting happened after
the deal had already been negotiated, so we
really shouldn’t attach any significance to
the fact that it happened one-on-one.
And he said, we lived in a city where people
have breakfast meetings essentially all the
But I didn’t find it satisfactory, because,
as I understand the timeline here, the deal
may have been negotiated, but it wasn’t, if
you will, a done deal at the time that he
had the meeting.
Epstein was continuing to appeal the decision
with regard to that negotiations up the chain
at the Department of Justice, and the plea
in state court had not yet been entered, as
I understand it.
So I think it’s a little bit disingenuous
to say that there’s no significance to that
meeting having occurred because, essentially,
everything was already done that was of significance
at that time.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just quickly, Jessica Roth,
if you could ask Secretary Acosta a question
yourself, what is still outstanding in your
mind about what happened?
JESSICA ROTH: Well, one thing he didn’t address
adequately, to my mind, is why the non-prosecution
agree agreement granted immunity to unnamed
co-conspirators of Epstein’s?
That is a very broad provision, and it wasn’t
adequately explained.
He said in response to a question about that,
well, we were focusing, if you will, on the
most culpable person, who was Epstein, who
was the top of the conspiracy.
And there’s no question that Epstein was the
most culpable person, but by immunizing some
named people, which occurred, but also anyone
who was a potential co-conspirator, that really
precluded the idea of cooperating other co-conspirators
against Epstein, which would have been a critical
thing to pursue a more serious case against
So he didn’t explain that provision.
And he didn’t fully explain why they pursued
such a lenient deal.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, just quickly,
back to you, Yamiche, where does this go for
Secretary Acosta?
What is the White House saying now?
YAMICHE ALCINDOR: This is really going to
be an issue that Secretary Acosta is going
to have to continue to deal with.
House Democrats on the House Oversight Committee
say that they want to hold hearings and possibly
have Acosta testify.
Now, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney
has said that Acosta did an excellent job
He told reporters that on the Hill.
However, the White House has not said anything.
President Trump has not said anything.
And we have seen President Trump come to the
defense of Cabinet secretaries and then, after
seeing them not really defend themselves in
the way that he thinks is adequate, then fire
So I think Secretary Acosta still has — is
in a place where the president is still evaluating
So we will have to watch closely what the
president says and what he does about Secretary
Right now, his job is secure, I’m told by
sources, but that’s just for right now.
That could change in the next hour or in the
next minute.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Yamiche Alcindor and former
prosecutor Jessica Roth, thank you.
JESSICA ROTH: Thank you.

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