President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans are moving quickly to back up beleaguered Labor Secretary Alex Acosta. But pressure is rising from other corners of the White House, with acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney privately urging the president to dismiss him.
Mulvaney told Trump on Monday that the continuing drip of damaging information surrounding the 2008 agreement Acosta struck to keep billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein from a heavy jail sentence would hurt the administration, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
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Mulvaney also may be seizing on an opportunity to try to depose a frequent antagonist who has frustrated some conservatives in the White House and business leaders on the outside.
Acosta critics, including Mulvaney, have argued that he has not been aggressive enough in stamping out Obama-era workplace regulations and employment discrimination lawsuits, and they are using the Epstein lawsuit to push him out the door.
Mulvaney on Tuesday acknowledged the tension with Acosta but said it was merely part of the job. “I push all of the Cabinet Secretaries on the deregulatory agenda, as it is a top priority of the President,” Mulvaney said in a statement. “That in no way should be interpreted as displeasure with any Cabinet member, including Secretary Acosta.”
But when pushed to fire scandal-plagued aides, the conflict-averse president has often dug in his heels — waiting weeks, if not months, for harmful news clips to pile up and for pressure to mount on Capitol Hill. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt faced numerous allegations of corruption and excessive spending but lasted months in the job before Trump showed him the door last July.
Trump on Tuesday vigorously defended Acosta, telling reporters in the Oval Office that he has “been just an excellent secretary of Labor.”
Senate Republicans broadly support Acosta because he is easy to work with, but privately some said they are bracing for him to be ousted. Most are in no mood for another confirmation battle and are standing by Acosta, at least for now.
“He serves at the president’s pleasure. But I would point out that nothing new has come out. And we ought to reserve judgment until any new information is revealed,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
Trump allies say they have no hint which way he is leaning amid widespread calls from Democrats for Acosta’s resignation and new concerns among some Republicans that Acosta may have gone too easy on Epstein. Acosta was also supported by former White House counsel Don McGahn, who is now gone and out of the president’s good graces after his appearance in the Mueller report.
Trump is “pretty capable himself of reading the tea leaves apart from all that noise,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).
“Whether he digs in? There’s evidence that he’s done that sometimes but there’s also evidence that he can cut the cord pretty quickly. He’s not going to carry someone else’s political burden,” Cramer added.
But Cramer said that while Acosta’s deal with Epstein appears “egregious,” he has nonetheless been a strong Labor secretary.
Acosta was the U.S. attorney in Miami when he struck what critics call a sweetheart deal in which he declined to prosecute Epstein on federal sex trafficking charges and allowed him to plead guilty to a single charge of soliciting prostitution. The scandal was reignited over the weekend when prosecutors in Manhattan announced their intention to issue a new indictment against the financier.
The editorial board of the Miami Herald, which has reported extensively on Acosta’s history, called on him to resign on Tuesday, writing, “If Acosta, when he was U.S. attorney in Miami, had shown an ounce of sympathy for the vulnerable girls Epstein sexually exploited, they would have had a powerful voice on their side.”
The president appeared to reject that reasoning, telling reporters Tuesday that some fault could be found in any attorney or judge’s record.
“If you go back and look at everybody else’s decisions, whether it’s a U.S. attorney, or a judge, if you go back 12 or 15 years ago or 20 years ago and look at their past decisions, I would think you would probably find that they would wish they had maybe did it a different way,” he said.
Acosta’s critics, however, are more than happy to exhume his past missteps as they try to maneuver him out of a job.
One move that has particularly rankled conservatives is Acosta’s decision to allow an employment discrimination lawsuit to proceed against Oracle, the rare Silicon Valley company that is not entirely hostile to the GOP.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board criticized Acosta in February for acceding to the “left’s identity politics,” adding: “Is he running the bureaucracy or getting run over by it?”
Inside the White House, Mulvaney is uniquely involved in the administration’s deregulatory agenda because he is simultaneously serving as the director of the Office of Management and Budget.
“President Trump has made deregulation a priority across the administration, which has helped unleash unprecedented economic and job growth,” deputy press secretary Judd Deere told POLITICO. “The White House will continue to work in consultation with all agencies to advance the President’s promise of rolling back unnecessary regulations
Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, are ramping up calls for Acosta’s ouster.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who supported Acosta’s confirmation, turned on the Labor secretary late Tuesday.
“These allegations are seriously damning; barring a compelling explanation from Secretary Acosta, I don’t see how he can continue to lead the department,” King said.
Senate Republicans did not discuss the controversy at their party lunch Tuesday, according to an attendee, suggesting they are either unworried about the drama — or that it’s not their problem.
While many expressed outrage over Epstein’s alleged crimes, most said they did not know enough about the 2008 plea deal to say whether or not Acosta had erred.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said he was “certainly concerned” that Epstein might have gotten off easy under the deal with Acosta but that there were too many unanswered questions to come to an immediate judgment on the secretary’s future. He suggested resignation calls were merely a Democratic distraction.
“It should be lost on nobody that Epstein was a major Democratic donor who palled around uncomfortably close with Bill Clinton. And I think that’s part of the reason that Democrats are so desperate to change the focus to Acosta,” Cruz said in an interview.
There are also more practical matters at play for Republicans.
Trump’s Cabinet is filled with acting officials and Trump’s Labor Department itself was once home to political misfortune. The president’s original nominee, Andy Puzder, withdrew from consideration as his support among Senate Republicans cratered after reports he had abused his then-wife. Acosta, Trump’s second choice, was confirmed by a bipartisan vote.
Now, Acosta is one of the Cabinet’s few remaining survivors, and there’s little appetite for more vacancies with an acting Defense secretary, Homeland Security secretary, Office of Management and Budget director and other agencies lacking permanent leaders.
So Senate Republicans are reluctant to call for scrapping Acosta, knowing it could create yet another headache given the president’s proclivity for nominating controversial officials.
“I’ve seen some good people hurt. If they did something wrong, they ought to pay the price, but until that’s conclusive that they did, I don’t think they should be lynched,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
Acosta’s handling of the Epstein case has also been the subject of a Department of Justice probe that Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said Acosta needed to “fully cooperate” with. Most Senate Republicans said they would wait until it concludes before weighing in on Acosta’s future.
“Whether Mr. Acosta should resign depends on the results of the investigation that’s gone on within the Justice Department. I hope it’s a thorough investigation,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
Acosta himself spoke publicly for the first time on Tuesday since news broke over the weekend that the U.S. attorney in Manhattan was set to indict Epstein on a new set of charges.
“The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence,” Acosta wrote in a series of tweets. “Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”
But some thought Acosta should do more than tweet if he wants to keep his job.
“Questions have been raised about the plea bargain, why this pig [Epstein] wasn’t put in jail. And the only way to deal with them is to answer it. And if I were the secretary I would call a press conference this afternoon,” said Sen. John N. Kennedy (R-La.). “The air needs to be cleared.”