With the resignation Friday of embattled Labor Secretary Alex Acosta over his handling of the 2008 Jeffrey Epstein prosecution, conservatives wasted no time in urging President Trump to nominate his deputy, Patrick Pizzella, to head the department.
Mr. Pizzella, a longtime Labor official who served under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is scheduled to take over as acting secretary this Friday, the day Mr. Acosta’s resignation becomes official.
“Pat is a committed conservative and has dedicated his career to advancing the American principles that undergird both your presidency and your administration,” said a letter from the Conservative Action Project, signed by former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and other conservatives.
Mr. Acosta had said on Friday he would resign amid a growing Democratic and media outcry over his decision as U.S. Attorney for Southern Florida to sign off on a 18-month sentence for convicted sex offender Mr. Epstein, who served only 13 months.
“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.”
Mr. Acosta appeared at the White House with President Trump, who said the Labor secretary had called him Friday morning about quitting, and that it was the secretary’s decision.
“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%.”
Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, said that Mr. 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.”
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, accusing him of 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.
The president called Mr. Acosta a “great Labor secretary, not a good one.”
Nominating Mr. Pizzella would no doubt raise hackles on the left: He was approved last year as deputy secretary on a party-line vote after Democrats raised objections to his work at the same firm as disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Mr. Trump also has come under renewed scrutiny for his former friendship with the billionaire financier, 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 Epstein, he said he never visited the wealthy financier’s private island in the Virgin Islands. Former President Bill Clinton had acknowledged flying on 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.”
• Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.
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