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Alexander Acosta’s Trumpian Non-Apology

The labor secretary botched the Jeffrey Epstein case a decade ago—then he botched his chance to admit his mistakes. His boss must be proud.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

It was already clear before this week that Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, as a federal prosecutor a decade ago, had mishandled the Jeffrey Epstein case: He gave the well-connected hedge-fund manager the deal of a lifetime for sex-trafficking underage girls, immunized his co-conspirators from potential charges, and denied his victims a chance for justice. Epstein’s arrest by federal prosecutors in Manhattan over the weekend only underscored his failure.

So perhaps there was nothing Acosta, amid mounting criticism, could have said at Wednesday’s press conference to make things right. But the proper approach, obvious to many, was to show some contrition. He could have acknowledged his mistakes and apologized for them. He could have highlighted why others shouldn’t discount victims of sexual abuse in the future as he once did. He could have even resigned.

Acosta chose another path. He gave an astonishingly Trumpian performance: admit no error, shift responsibility, and blame the media. It was an inexplicable choice as well as an ironic one, since it may not be enough to save him from the president’s mercurial whims.

Acosta, who served as the top federal prosecutor in Miami from 2005 to 2009, began by praising the Southern District of New York for arresting Epstein over the weekend. “I’m pleased that the New York prosecution is going forward,” he told reporters. “His acts are despicable and the New York prosecution affords an opportunity to more fully bring Jeffrey Epstein to justice.”

The acts described in the indictment took place between 2005 and 2007, well within the timeframe of Acosta’s handling of the case. That brought renewed scrutiny of the non-prosecution agreement struck with Epstein in 2007, which scrapped a 53-page indictment in exchange for pleading guilty to lesser state prostitution charges and registering as a sex offender. Instead of confessing error, Acosta on Wednesday gave only the most threadbare acknowledgement that he might have made mistakes. “We now have twelve years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a very different world,” he said. Reporters failed in multiple attempts to elicit an apology from him. Asked if he has “no regrets,” he replied, “No regrets is a very hard question.”

So where did the blame lie, if not with him? Here, Acosta found no shortage of suspects. He readily pointed the finger at Florida prosecutors and law-enforcement officials. “Simply put, the Palm Beach State Attorney’s office was willing to let Epstein walk free, no jail time, nothing,” he said. “Prosecutors in my former office found this to be completely unacceptable and they became involved.” He also blamed the state for Epstein’s eventual 13-month sentence, which was largely served out of jail thanks to a generous work-release policy, instead of the 18-month sentence they had negotiated.

If Acosta was worried that Florida would go easy on Epstein, why did he later go so easy on him? This time, it’s the American people’s fault. He suggested that a jury weighing the case, prior to the rise of the #MeToo movement, might have reached the wrong conclusion. “One of those tough questions in these cases [is] what is the value of a secured guilty plea with registration versus rolling the dice?” Acosta said. “I know that in 2019, looking back on 2008, things may look different.” To whatever extent he’s right about changing cultural attitudes toward survivors of sexual assault, Americans hardly looked kindly on the exploitation and abuse of underage girls twelve years ago.

At one point, he even seemed to place the onus on the victims themselves. A reporter asked Acosta whether he had a message for the women affected by Epstein’s alleged crimes. “The message is you need to come forward,” he replied. “I heard this morning that another victim came forward and made horrendous, horrendous allegations—allegations that should never happen to any woman, much less a young girl. As victims come forward, these cases can be brought, and they can be brought by the federal government, they can be brought by state’s attorneys, and they will be brought.”

What happened in this case, however, wasn’t that the women didn’t come forward; they did. It’s that Acosta didn’t hear them. To cap off the Trumpian display, he even took a jab at the press. One of the Miami Herald’s stories on the Epstein case opens by describing how Acosta met with the hedge-fund manager’s lawyer in 2008 to hammer out the non-prosecution agreement over breakfast at a local Marriott. Was that accurate, a reporter asked Acosta? “I’ve read this, and, you know, one of the things I find interesting is how facts become facts because they’re in a newspaper, as opposed to in the public record,” he said, as if to suggest it was fake news.

He then proceeded to confirm that a similar breakfast meeting had actually occurred, though not exactly in the way it was described. Later, a Herald reporter asked why he didn’t set the record straight when the newspaper contacted him for comment multiple times before publishing the story. Acosta replied that he doesn’t comment on former cases, saying that it’s the Justice Department’s job. It’s not my fault, in other words, if reporters misprinted something after I turned down the opportunity to correct them. Contrast that with Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who praised investigative reporters for shedding light on Epstein’s acts during his own press conference this week.

It’s doubtful whether the more subdued performance will be enough to save Acosta from dismissal. Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, reportedly urged Trump to drop Acosta before the scandal drags on any further. A growing chorus of Democrats is also demanding his departure. Acosta’s performance lacked the volcanic rage of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose angry, partisan remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall rallied Trump and other Republicans behind his nomination. But what it lacked in outrage, it supplied in mimicry of the man who will now decide Acosta’s fate.