Labor Secretary Alex Acosta at the White House on Jan. 23 in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

President Trump reportedly told Labor Secretary Alex Acosta to go out and defend himself in a news conference to quell the firestorm set off by the indictment of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein on charges of sex trafficking. In 2008, when Acosta was U.S. attorney in Miami, his office struck a deal with Epstein in secret, so victims did not have a chance to raise objections. Acosta was unapologetic and weirdly unemotional during a nearly one-hour news conference.

Acosta refused to apologize to the victims, although asked more than once to do so. “We believe that we proceeded appropriately,” he insisted. He refused to even express regret. “Look, no regrets is a very hard question,” Acosta said, adding, “There is a value to a short guilty plea because letting him walk — letting what the state attorney was ready to do go forward — would have been absolutely awful.” In other words, state prosecutors could have cut an even worse deal. He still did not explain why, with a 53-page indictment, he was unwilling to bring the case to trial.

At times, his answers were downright bizarre. He argued he did not want to inform victims of efforts to gain them restitution because if it fell through, they would look like money-grubbers and hence not credible if they later testified. But the deal was later ruled illegal, in violation of victims’ rights laws. If “afraid to taint witnesses in a case I was afraid to try” were the standard, no victim would ever be informed before a plea deal. Former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller observes, “His explanation was consistent with the entire news conference: lacking any willingness at all to show contrition or regret to the victims.”

Acosta declared, “He is a bad man and he needs to be put away,” as if he had not been in a position to do this.

Former prosecutors expressed disgust with his performance. “Acosta tried to shift blame to everyone else — the Florida state prosecutors, the line assistants in his office — and portray himself as a hero who did what he had to do to get Acosta jail time,” former prosecutor Mimi Rocah tells me. “But none of that rings true. He wouldn’t even acknowledge that it was wrong not to notify the victims of this pathetically low plea deal even after Judge [Kenneth A.] Marra found that it violated the [victims rights statute].”

Former prosecutor Joyce White Vance found Acosta entirely unconvincing. “You don’t let victims find out about a sweetheart deal for a man who raped and trafficked them in the newspaper," she says.

Asked if he would step down, Acosta replied that he served at the pleasure of the president. That actually was the most helpful thing he said. He remains there, arrogant and defiant without any remorse for conduct already assessed to be illegal, for one reason: Trump wants him there. And Republicans are too afraid of a tweet or harsh word from Trump to speak out. In that respect, Republican senators (including all those who voted to confirm Acosta) are equally complicit.

The House Oversight Committee has written to “invite” Acosta to testify. If the news conference was any indication, that should be a complete debacle. Perhaps he’ll be forced out before he’s dragged before Congress. In the meantime, the entire horrible miscarriage of justice will hang over Trump — who has enough worries trying to convince voters he was no “fan” of the accused child rapist whom he previously spoke of in glowing terms.

Read more:

Kathleen Parker: One thing is clear from the Jeffrey Epstein revelations: Acosta must step down

Alyssa Rosenberg: We need to know the truth about Jeffrey Epstein and his friends. All of it.

Max Boot: Epstein is in jail. But Trump continues to make a mockery of justice.