“I thought the right thing was to step aside,” Mr. Acosta told reporters. “I don’t think it is right and fair for this administration’s Labor Department to have Epstein as the focus rather than the incredible economy we have today.”
“This was him, not me,” the president said. “I said to Alex, you don’t have to do this.”
But Mr. Trump said he agreed that the Epstein case was becoming a distraction from the administration’s strong economic record.
“There’s so many good things, that he didn’t want to distract from that,” Mr. Trump said. “And I understand that 100%.”
The decision to step down came amid a chorus of calls by Democrats for Mr. Acosta’s resignation. They said his approval as U.S. Attorney of a lenient plea deal for Mr. Epstein more than a decade ago should disqualify him for the job.
“Secretary Acosta’s sweetheart deal for serial sex abuser Jeffrey Epstein was one of the many reasons I didn’t think he should have been nominated in the first place, and he’s making the right choice to step down,” said Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat.
Mr. Acosta said he believed it would be “selfish for me to stay in the position and continue talking about a case that is 12 years old.”
Federal prosecutors last week arrested Mr. Epstein on new charges of sex trafficking for allegedly abusing underage girls at his homes in New York and Palm Beach, Florida. The fresh charges, prompted by investigative reporting by the Miami Herald, also led to renewed scrutiny of Mr. Acosta’s role in the old plea deal.
Mr. Trump also has come under renewed scrutiny for his former friendship with Mr. Epstein, whom he praised in a 2002 magazine article as a “terrific guy” with a well-known fondness for young women. While the president praised Mr. Acosta’s defense of himself publicly, there were also concerns in the White House that questions about the Epstein case would persist into the reelection campaign.
“The reason doesn’t make any difference,” Mr. Trump said. “I didn’t want anything to do with him.”
Although Mr. Trump reportedly attended parties with Mr. Epstein, he said he never visited the wealthy financier’s private island in the Virgin Islands. Former President Bill Clinton had acknowledged flying on Mr. Epstein’s private jet four times to various locations around the world, but has denied any wrongdoing.
“Now other people, they went all over the world,” Mr. Trump said in an apparent reference to Mr. Clinton. “They went to his island. They went all over the place.”
“Find out the people that went to the island,” the president told reporters. “But Jeffrey Epstein was not somebody that I respected.”
He said he was determined to make sure that Mr. Epstein served at least some time in jail on prostitution charges, although a subsequent decision allowed Mr. Epstein to serve the 13-month sentence with work-release privileges that enabled him to go to his office six days a week for 12 hours per day.
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