Labor Secretary Alex Acosta’s resignation Friday amid the mushrooming Jeffrey Epstein investigation made him the latest in a growing list of President Trump’s Cabinet members to depart under a cloud of scandal, plunging an administration that has struggled with record turnover into further upheaval.
Trump announced the departure in a morning appearance with Acosta on the South Lawn of the White House, telling reporters that his labor secretary had chosen to step down a day after defending himself in a contentious news conference over his role as a U.S. attorney a decade ago in a deal with Epstein that allowed the financier to plead guilty to lesser offenses in a sex-crimes case involving underage girls.
The president expressed regret over Acosta’s decision, calling him a “great labor secretary” and saying he had reassured the secretary that “you don’t have to do this.”
“It was him, not me,” Trump said, though behind the scenes, he had grown uncertain about Acosta’s future, according to administration aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
The sole Hispanic member of Trump’s Cabinet said the intense media focus on his role in Epstein’s case while he was a U.S. attorney in Florida had threatened to become a distraction that would undermine his work for the administration. Trump has sought to promote robust job growth and record-low unemployment in his appeal to workers and organized labor as he ramps up his reelection campaign.
But Trump, who as a private businessman had socialized with Epstein in the early 2000s, has come under renewed scrutiny for his ties to the disgraced financier and has faced fresh questions over his decision to hire Acosta. Trump has said he had a falling out with Epstein and cut off their relationship 15 years ago.
“I don’t 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,” said Acosta, whose resignation will take effect in a week. “It would be selfish for me to stay in the position and continue talking about a case that is 12 years old.”
Trump said that Patrick Pizzella, the deputy secretary of labor, will become acting secretary of the department.
Acosta’s rapid downfall closed a 2½-year tenure that began only after Trump’s first choice for labor secretary, fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, was forced to pull out over several personal and professional controversies.
In all, 13 Cabinet members named by Trump have departed over 30 months, not counting those who served in an acting capacity. Several others left amid ethics scandals, among them Tom Price at Health and Human Services, David Shulkin at Veterans Affairs, Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency and Ryan Zinke at Interior.
Ronny L. Jackson, whom Trump nominated to replace Shulkin, had his name pulled by the White House after allegations of mismanagement during his time as the White House physician. And last month, Patrick Shanahan dropped out of contention to be the permanent defense secretary after revelations over his marriage and family background.
Several others, including Jeff Sessions at Justice, Jim Mattis at the Pentagon, Kirstjen Nielsen at Homeland Security and James B. Comey at the FBI, were forced out or resigned amid increasing acrimony in their personal relationships with Trump or the president’s frustration with their performances.
It is a dismal record for a president who boasted of hiring only “the best people.”
Trump has struggled to keep up with the frequent vacancies, and he has moved in several cases to allow acting secretaries, who do not require Senate confirmation, to handle the duties, raising questions of accountability from congressional Democrats and good-governance groups.
Still, Acosta’s departure seemed almost inevitable, coming amid mounting calls on Capitol Hill for his resignation.
“Given the serious questions about his handling of the Epstein case and his failure to take responsibility for his conduct, Mr. Acosta was no longer entitled to public confidence,” Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, said in a statement. “The Epstein case is an extraordinary example of the ordinary ways in which money and power often determine who prevails in our criminal justice system. We must have a national conversation about the deep inequities that this case represents.”
The 2008 plea deal in Florida in which Acosta was involved came under renewed scrutiny in light of Epstein’s indictment Monday on child sex-trafficking charges in New York.
Eleven years ago, Epstein, 66, signed a non-prosecution agreement with federal authorities and pleaded guilty in state court to felony solicitation of underage girls.
During his 13-month sentence in a Palm Beach, Fla., jail, Epstein was allowed to work from his office six days a week. As U.S. attorney, Acosta approved the deal. A federal judge this year ruled that prosecutors had violated the rights of Epstein’s accusers by failing to notify them of an agreement not to bring federal charges.
At a news conference Wednesday, Acosta defended his role, stating that a state attorney in Palm Beach County had been preparing at the time to allow Epstein to plead guilty to a single charge of solicitation that did not make reference to the age of the female minor. That deal would have carried no jail time and would not have required Epstein to register as a sex offender, Acosta said.
“We wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” Acosta said. “He needed to go to jail.”
The state attorney for Palm Beach County at the time of the Epstein plea deal released a statement after Acosta’s news conference disputing Acosta’s account.
“I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong,” said Barry E. Krischer, who added that Acosta could have moved forward with a 53-page indictment that the U.S. attorney’s office had drafted.
House Democrats called on Acosta to appear at a hearing on the matter in two weeks.
After Acosta’s news conference, the reaction inside the White House was mixed, according to a senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly.
Some aides thought Acosta had adequately explained his handling of the Epstein case and had “won” by not further harming himself, the official said. But others had been expecting a more animated performance and found Acosta’s time before the cameras disappointing, saying he had failed to mount a full-throated defense of himself.
Trump expressed skepticism at Acosta’s performance and began asking senior aides what he should do about the labor secretary, according to two White House officials, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Acosta was disliked by acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who told others Acosta was ineffective at implementing the administration’s deregulation agenda, the officials said.
But Trump did not originally want to be seen as cutting ties with him over a decade-old episode, even as some of the president’s longest-serving advisers thought Acosta’s departure was inevitable, given the sustained and voluminous news coverage and the facts of the case.
A Republican strategist frequently in touch with the White House said lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office viewed the 2008 plea deal as seriously flawed and did not expect the controversy to fade.
The strategist, who was not authorized to speak for the White House and commented on the condition of anonymity, said the former local prosecutor’s comments contradicting Acosta were also “pretty awful.”
Trump told reporters that he thought Acosta had “explained” the plea deal during his news conference.
“He made a deal that people were happy with, and 12 years later they weren’t happy with it,” Trump said. “You’ll have to figure that out.”
Spencer Kuvin, a Florida-based lawyer who represented the 14-year-old girl who first reported Epstein to the police, called Acosta’s resignation a step toward accountability.
“It is fantastic news that finally the people who were involved in this awful sweetheart deal for a pedophile are being held to account for their failures,” Kuvin said.
Colby Itkowitz, Seung Min Kim, Chelsea Janes and Kimberly Kindy contributed to this report.