The story behind a Palm Beach sex offender’s remarkable deal
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta is out of the running to be President Donald Trump’s attorney general following a Miami Herald report that he oversaw a sweetheart deal for a wealthy financier accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls, according to two people close to the president.
The investigation, published Wednesday, was “not helpful” to Acosta, who was a federal prosecutor in Florida before coming to Washington, the two advisers said.
Acosta, though, was never under serious consideration to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump fired earlier this month. ‘It was never going to be him,” one said.
The investigation, which reported that Acosta, then U.S. attorney, cut a secret deal to allow billionaire Jeffrey Epstein to serve only 13 months in a county jail, is “clearly something” that is being widely circulated among Trump aides, one of the people said. The agreement “essentially shut down an ongoing FBI probe” and granted immunity to “any potential co-conspirators,” according to the story.
Acosta’s current job, which includes overseeing labor laws related to sex-trafficking, is not in jeopardy, several people told McClatchy.
But people in contact with the White House since the story was published say Acosta’s chances for getting another position in the federal government — including a judgeship Acosta expressed interest in — have fallen dramatically in part because he likely would not be confirmed in a Senate where Republicans hold a slim majority, according to a former White House official.
Trump likes Acosta, but White House staff are frustrated with him because they think the secretary has moved too slowly on changes to regulations the administration wants because he doesn’t want to jeopardize any future confirmation, the former official said. “Whatever this guy wants is a tough sell right now,” the person said. “His stock, which already isn’t great, took a big hit.”
On Thursday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s office issued a statement saying the Florida Democrat wanted the Justice Department’s inspector general to investigate whether Acosta engaged in misconduct when he made the secret plea deal.
“The American people and the victims of these horrific crimes deserve to know why justice was not served in this disturbing case, and the lack of transparency still cloaking it is very troubling,” her statement said. “Therefore, I am calling on the Office of Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Justice to immediately open an investigation into potential corruption surrounding Secretary Acosta’s actions as a federal prosecutor.”
Neither the White House, nor the Labor Department, would respond to repeated questions about the report.
Trump will likely pick an attorney general whom he has a closer relationship with than Acosta. Those who have made the short list are Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, retiring Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the two advisers said.
Bondi, who is finishing her second term, has long been mentioned as a possible administration appointee since Trump became president last year. She was a Trump surrogate during the 2016 presidential campaign and, more recently, a member of the president’s Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission.
Trump and Bondi recently met while the president was on vacation at his Mar-A-Lago resort in Palm Beach for Thanksgiving, according to the advisers.
“I’d consider Pam Bondi for anything,” Trump told reporters earlier this month. “I know her very well. In the meantime, she’s got a very good job. She’s doing a very good job. She’s always done a very good job. But at some form ... I’d love to have her in the administration.”
Christie, a longtime Trump ally who prosecuted the father of Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, recently spoke to Kushner at the White House. If Christie is to be chosen, Kushner must agree, the sources said.
Trump abruptly fired Sessions after criticizing him repeatedly for recusing himself from oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump aides colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.
Trump named Matthew Whitaker, who had been Sessions’ chief of staff at the Justice Department and served as U.S. attorney in Iowa, as acting attorney general. Democrats have been calling for Whitaker to recuse himself from Mueller’s investigation because he has been critical of it.
Trump is also considering Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who has a closer relationship to the president than Acosta.
Several conservative lawyers are recommending Janice Rogers Brown, a retired circuit judge and former California Supreme Court justice who has spoken to the White House about the job, according to a third person familiar with the situation. Brown, who stepped down last year after serving a dozen years on the D.C. circuit court, where she served alongside now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, does not have an existing relationship with Trump.
Julie Brown of the Miami Herald contributed to this report.
Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01