Alex Acosta resigns from U.S. government after furor over Jeffrey Epstein plea deal

U.S. Labour Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned on Friday after earlier in the week defending the way he handled a decade-old sex abuse case against wealthy businessman Jeffrey Epstein while Acosta was a federal prosecutor.

Acosta, years after the plea deal in Florida, was Trump's 2nd choice for labour secretary

President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media with Secretary of Labour Alex Acosta on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday. Trump said he would miss Acosta, given his performance in his administration. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

U.S. Labour Secretary Alexander Acosta on Friday resigned after earlier in the week defending the way he handled a decade-old sex abuse case against wealthy businessman Jeffrey Epstein while Acosta was a federal prosecutor.

Donald Trump announced the news with Acosta by his side at the White House as the president left on a trip to the Midwest.

Trump earlier this week said he would look into the matter, complimenting Acosta for serving the government ably for over two years.

He repeated that endorsement of his performance on Friday, but admitted the questions about the Epstein deal had become a distraction.

"I hate to see this happen," Trump said. He said he did not ask Acosta to leave the cabinet.

Unfair to administration, Acosta says

Acosta said his resignation would be effective in seven days. Acosta said he didn't think it was right for his handling of Epstein's case to distract from his work as secretary of labour.

"My point here today is we have an amazing economy and the focus needs to be on the economy and job creation," Acosta said, calling it unfair the administration was being inundated with questions about a 12-year-old case.

Acosta answered media questions Wednesday on his involvement in a non-prosecution agreement with financier Jeffrey Epstein. Acosta's defence was ultimately not enough to keep his current job. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

On Monday, U.S. prosecutors in New York accused Epstein, 66, of sex trafficking, in an indictment that detailed how he lured dozens of girls, some as young as 14, to his luxury homes and coerced them into performing sex acts.

Epstein has pleaded not guilty. 

The prosecutors said they were not bound by the 2008 Florida deal struck by Acosta, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, that allowed Epstein to plea to a lesser offence. Epstein served 13 months in jail with leave during the day and registered as a sex offender.

The deal came under scrutiny earlier this year following reporting by the Miami Herald, and Democrats en masse had called for Acosta's resignation.

Acosta had attempted to clear his name, and on Wednesday held a news conference — encouraged by Trump — to defend his actions. In a 50-plus-minute lawyerly rebuttal, Acosta argued his office had secured the best deal it could at the time and was working in the victims' best interests.

"We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail," he said, refusing to apologize for his actions. "We believe that we proceeded appropriately."

Pressed on whether he had any regrets, Acosta repeatedly suggested that circumstances had changed since then.

"We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a very different world," he said. "Today's world treats victims very, very differently," he said.

After federal attorneys in New York announced the new charges against Epstein this week, Acosta tweeted that he was "pleased" by their decision.

Both Trump and former president Bill Clinton were acquainted with Epstein, but have taken pains after the Herald reporting to distance themselves from the hedge fund manager.

Trump called Epstein a "terrific guy" in a 2002 magazine feature, but has said this week soon after that time the pair ended their friendship.

"Jeffrey Epstein is not a man I respected," he said.

Rash of administration departures

Trump said Friday that deputy Pat Pizzella will take over as acting labour secretary, one of a host of positions now vacant or with officials serving in an acting capacity.

Seven months after James Mattis resigned as defence secretary, for example, there has yet to be confirmation hearings after Patrick Shanahan pulled out of the running. There is also no confirmed deputy defence secretary, and other significant senior civilian and military Pentagon positions are in limbo, more than at any recent time.

Kirstjen Nielsen, outgoing secretary of Homeland Security, in April become the 15th cabinet official to depart in just over two years, a rate of turnover not matched in recent presidencies.

Acosta was not Trump's first choice to fill the post as he became president. He ascended to the role after Andrew Puzder, the original pick and former head of Carl's Jr. Restaurants, withdrew from consideration after domestic violence allegations emerged.

Acosta was confirmed in the Senate in early 2017 by a 60-38 vote, with all Republicans on board, along with eight Democrats and one independent.

The U.S. Department of Labor is a sprawling agency that enforces more than 180 federal laws covering about 10 million employers and 125 million workers.

With files from CBC News