By Jon Keller

BOSTON (CBS) – “Without the work of our prosecutors, Epstein would have gotten away,” said Labor Sec. Alex Acosta at a press conference designed to defuse the renewed uproar over his handling – as then-US Attorney for Florida – of a 2008 sex-crime case against financier Jeffrey Epstein.

The recent arrest and indictment of Epstein in New York on new charges of sex trafficking of underage girls has reignited outrage over the Florida deal he cut with Acosta, a 13-month sentence that let Epstein leave jail for his office six days a week, the plea deal kept secret in a move since ruled illegal. And while President Trump has praised Acosta as “an excellent secretary of labor,” Wednesday’s press conference was reportedly recommended by Mr. Trump as a way to take off the heat by going on offense.

“You can always look at a play after the fact and say should it have been a safe play? Or should you have gone for the big score?” said Acosta, who proceeded, in a lawyerly, unemotional tone, to punt responsibility for the controversial plea to other prosecutors, claiming legal standards of the time would have made a tougher sentence unlikely.

He passed on multiple opportunities to apologize to victims distraught over the outcome. And he repeatedly cast himself as the hero of the story: “How many other times have you seen a US Attorney’s office intervene in a state matter and say ‘stop the state plea because it is insufficient?'”

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta holds a press conference at the US Department of Labor on July 10, 2019 in Washington,DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

Will that save his job?

“If at some point the president decides I am not the best person to do this job, I respect that, that is his choice,” said Acosta.

We’ve seen this dance many times before in Washington, an appointee given a chance to talk their way out of a bad-publicity storm, only to have their “resignations” accepted if it doesn’t produce immediate results. Sometimes, like with Supreme Court nominee Bret Kavanaugh, it works.

This time?

I wouldn’t bet on it. Acosta’s legalisms and equivocations – however true to the complex legal aspects of the case – can’t compete with the offensive leniency of the deal. And as we’ve seen repeatedly during this administration (and past ones), there’s only so long the president will hang in there with an appointee when they’ve become politically toxic on a highly-charged issue.

Jon Keller


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