Top Democrats swiftly rejected Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta's explanation on Wednesday for his handling of a 2008 plea deal for financier Jeffrey Epstein while in a state attorney's office in Florida. They reiterated calls for him to resign, even as the White House indicated it would stand by the embattled Cabinet official.
White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told Fox News after Acosta's nearly hourlong press conference that the labor secretary "did great" -- but reviews from Democrats were decidedly more mixed.
"Secretary Acosta had a chance to do right by Jeffrey Epstein’s victims," Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline wrote on Twitter. "He failed. Today’s press conference doesn’t change that. The only appropriate thing for him to do now is to resign."
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine agreed: "Acosta is trying to defend the indefensible. He put a monstrous predator above survivors of sexual abuse, and he’s got to go — period."
Kaine grilled Acosta on the matter during his confirmation hearing in 2017, asking Acosta, “Why cut a non-prosecution deal despite your staff saying you shouldn’t?” (Acosta replied that the move was, in fact, a "broadly held decision.")
And Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal called the plea arrangement "immoral" and "unconscionable."
"Nothing said by Secretary Acosta at his press conference changes the verdict: he must go," Blumenthal said. "Despite his attempts to justify it, his unconscionable sweetheart deal w/sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein still stinks. This secret deal was immoral—a betrayal of young survivors and basic justice."
Speaking to reporters, Blumenthal added that the deal was "likely illegal" as well.
Still, it remained unclear whether Democrats' calls would have any effect. Accused serial fraudster and onetime Democrat presidential hopeful Michael Avenatti, in a Twitter post, suggested nothing would come of all the outrage.
"If Acosta does not resign, look out," Avenatti said in a social media post. "Because the Dem leadership is ready to tweet & send letters at a moments notice. Yep - no fear. Tweets and letters. Trump and the Rs have figured out they can do whatever they want bc the Dems have no guts and don’t know how to work the media."
In his lengthy press conference, Acosta explained why Epstein ultimately served only 13 months in jail and registered as a sex offender after pleading guilty to two felony prostitution charges, despite facing up to life imprisonment. Epstein was charged this week with sex trafficking and conspiracy during the early 2000s based on new evidence, and pleaded not guilty on Monday in New York City federal court.
Acosta, who pointedly did not apologize to Epstein's alleged victims, asserted that the Florida U.S. attorney's office he oversaw at the time had in fact fought for a tougher punishment when state prosecutors were ready to let Epstein "walk free."
The Trump administration, meanwhile, has vigorously defended Acosta while downplaying Trump's own connections to Epstein -- who also is friends with powerful figures like former President Bill Clinton.
Mulvaney, speaking to Fox News, called reports that he has privately pushed for Acosta's dismissal "100 percent wrong," and indicated the White House was heartened by Acosta's performance at the press conference.
"I think Acosta did great," Mulvaney said. "He did exactly what he needed to do. He did an excellent job of laying out the facts."
And White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway said earlier on Tuesday that Trump told her that he hasn't spoken with or seen Epstein in 10 or 15 years. Conway added that like others, the president sees the sex trafficking charges against Epstein as "completely unconscionable and obviously criminal. Disgusting."
The brouhaha comes as The Daily Beast published an explosive report claiming that Acosta told Trump transition team interviewers that he went easy on Epstein because he was told to do for reasons related to U.S. intelligence.
An explosive Daily Beast report Wednesday indicated that Acosta previously told Trump transition team members that he was told to back off the Epstein case. "I was told Epstein ‘belonged to intelligence’ and to leave it alone,'" Acosta reportedly said.
“So, there has been reporting to that effect," Acosta said Wednesday. "And let me say, there’s been report to a lot of effects in this case. Not just now but over the years. And again, I would, I would hesitate to take this reporting as fact."
Acosta continued: "This was a case that was brought by our office. This was a case that was brought based on the facts,” said Acosta. “And I look at the reporting and others. I can’t address it directly because of our guidelines.”
Earlier in the week, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in calling for the labor secretary to go, sending a clear message to rank-and-file Democrats to do the same.
“Epstein should have been behind bars years ago, but unfortunately Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta cut Epstein a sweetheart deal while Acosta was a U.S. attorney in Florida in 2008,” Schumer said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta’s ability to lead the Department of Labor.”
Schumer added: “If he refuses to resign, President Trump should fire him. Instead of prosecuting a predator, a serial sex trafficker of children, Acosta chose to let him off easy. This is not acceptable.”
Acosta, in his press conference, insisted that his office intervened only after state prosecutors were ready to let Epstein walk free.
“Simply put, the Palm Beach state attorney’s office was ready to let Epstein walk free, no jail time,” Acosta said. “Prosecutors in my former office found this to be completely unacceptable.”
Acosta argued that it was his office that secured jail time, restitution and Epstein's registration as a sex offender.
"We believe that we proceeded appropriately, that's based on evidence, not just my opinion," Acosta said. "There was value to getting a guilty plea and having him register."
Fox News' Andrew O'Reilly and Adam Shaw contributed to this report.