Alex Acosta Had to Go, But the Jeffrey Epstein Scandal Is Really About Money and Privilege
The only surprise about the resignation of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta is that it took so long—four days after the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York arrested the financier Jeffrey Epstein on federal charges of sex trafficking. The moment the Southern District unveiled its indictment, which alleged that “between 2002 through 2005, Epstein sexually exploited and abused dozens of underage girls by enticing them to engage in sex acts with him in exchange for money,” it was clear that Acosta’s position as a Cabinet minister was untenable.
Of course, he should never have been nominated or confirmed to begin with. As the U.S. Attorney for Southern Florida a decade ago, it was Acosta who approved the now-notorious deal that allowed Epstein to escape federal prosecution and plead guilty to two state charges of soliciting. At the time, investigators working for Acosta had identified thirty-six victims of Epstein, according to the Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown, whose dogged investigative reporting effectively reopened the case.
As a federal official, Acosta wasn’t responsible for the lenient treatment that Epstein received at the hands of the Florida state justice system. Sentenced to eighteen months, Esptein served thirteen, in a private wing at the Palm Beach County Jail, where he was granted “work release” that allowed him to spend up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, at his office in the rich beachfront town. Nor was Acosta responsible for the inexplicable 2011 effort by the office of Cyrus Vance, Jr., the Manhattan attorney, to reduce Eptsein’s sex-offender status to the lowest possible classification, which an incredulous New York State Supreme Court Justice dismissed, saying that she had never seen anything like it before.
There is blame aplenty to go around. Indeed, Epstein’s story is a searing indictment of the entire criminal-justice system, and the special treatment it grants to people of great wealth who can afford to hire high-priced legal mercenaries like Roy Black, Alan Dershowitz, Jay Lefkowitz, and Kenneth Starr—the latter two being attached to the Washington office of Kirkland & Ellis, the world’s largest law firm. (All four of these luminaries served on Epstein’s defense team during the Florida prosecution.) As the Washington Post’s Helaine Olen pointed out in a blistering column, “The Epstein scandal blows holes through the foundational myths of our time, revealing them for the empty and sickening bromides used to justify obscene wealth and power and privilege that they really are.”
Even if it is the American class system that has been exposed, Acosta was the individual prosecutor who, in October, 2007, met with Lefkowitz—not in his Miami office but seventy miles north, at a Marriott in West Palm Beach—and struck the Epstein plea agreement, which, among other things, prevented the financier’s victims from learning about the deal and challenging it in court. Once the new indictment exposed these sorts of details to renewed scrutiny, the jig was up for Acosta, especially as his boss was also desperately trying to distance himself from Epstein, having once described him as “a terrific guy” who “is a lot of fun to be with.”
Acosta’s press conference on Wednesday only delayed the inevitable. Addressing the 2008 plea deal, he tried to shift the blame to state prosecutors, saying, “the Palm Beach state attorney’s office was ready to let Epstein walk free, no jail time.” Hours later, Barry Krischer, who was the state’s attorney for Palm Beach County at the time, responded, “I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong. Federal prosecutors do not take a back seat to state prosecutors. That’s not how the system works in the real world.” Krischer added, “If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the State’s case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the fifty-three-page indictment that his own office drafted.”
On Friday morning, Acosta appeared alongside Trump at the White House, to make the announcement that he was stepping down. “I just want to let you know, this was him, not me, because I am with him,” Trump said. “He’s a tremendous talent. He’s a Hispanic man. He went to Harvard, a great student. And in so many ways I just hate what he is saying now, because we are going to miss him.” Acosta said, “I do not think it is right and fair for this Administration’s Labor Department to have Epstein as the focus, rather than the incredible economy we have today . . . It would be selfish for me to stay in this position and continue talking about a case that is twelve years old.”
Over the next few days, we may learn more about whether Acosta jumped or was pushed. Evidently, Trump was initially unwilling to give in to Democratic demands for the Labor Secretary to resign. On Wednesday, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported, on Twitter, “A source close to President Trump tells me there is ‘zero’ chance he fires Labor Secretary Alex Acosta over his handling of the Jeffrey Epstein case. “ ‘Zero,’ they repeated.” However, Politico reported that Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s chief of staff, was quietly urging Trump to dismiss Acosta, and it seemed inconceivable that the Administration would keep the Labor Secretary in place as the case in the Southern District proceeded and more of Epstein’s victims emerged, creating more questions about the 2008 plea deal.
In any event, Trump didn’t fire Acosta. He resigned as Trump took the opportunity to distance himself again from Epstein, saying that he banned him from his Mar-a-Lago resort and adding, “I haven’t spoken to him in probably fifteen years or more.” With Acosta’s departure, Trump’s political allies, including some of the online incendiaries who were invited to the White House for Thursday’s “social-media summit,” will surely seek to shift the focus to Epstein’s ties to prominent Democrats, including the former President Bill Clinton.
That is how political warfare goes these days, but the key point bears repeating. The issues raised by the Epstein saga and the plea bargain that Acosta agreed to are systemic, rather than partisan. They go to the heart of the American class system and the manner in which people of great wealth and high social standing are often able to buy their own brand of justice, regardless of how flagrant or hideous their crimes may be.
Acosta didn’t invent this corrupted system: he may even have felt bullied and threatened by it when he was prosecuting Epstein. In a 2011 letter to the Daily Beast, Acosta described how Epstein’s legal team subjected him and his colleagues to “a year long assault,” which included investigating “individual prosecutors and their families, looking for personal peccadilloes that may provide a basis for disqualification.” To be sure, that was reprehensible behavior on the part of Epstein’s lawyers, but the fact is that Acosta was a U.S. Attorney, an agent of the highest power in the land, and many of Epstein’s victims, who tended to come from poor or modest backgrounds, ended up believing, with good reason, that the system had failed them.
Let the last words go to Julie K. Brown. “Sexual assault involving CHILDREN is NOT a Democratic or Republican issue,” Brown commented on Twitter, after Acosta’s press conference on Wednesday. “This horrific crime doesn’t discriminate based on political party. EVERYONE should be asking hard questions about this decisions made in this case … Not just why the deal was made—but because these decisions were made in secret, without telling the victims; by misleading the victims AND likely led to more victims being harmed. That’s not ‘stringing’ a public servant up—it’s called holding him accountable.”