Washington pols rushed Tuesday to put distance between themselves and politically toxic billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, with President Trump saying he broke off ties years ago, and one House Democrat reversing herself and saying she’ll return campaign donations from the disgraced financier.
Mr. Epstein’s indictment on charges of sex trafficking and conspiracy have shaken Washington to its core.
Alex Acosta, now the labor secretary but a decade ago the federal prosecutor who cut a deal with Mr. Epstein, faced a chorus of demands that he step down or be fired.
He took to Twitter to defend himself, saying that the crimes Mr. Epstein is accused of “are horrific” and he’s happy the U.S. attorney in New York has found a way to return to the case “based on new evidence.”
“With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator,” Mr. Acosta said.
At the White House, Mr. Trump said he’ll look “very carefully” at Mr. Acosta’s handling of the case, but defended his secretary, saying “there were a lot of people involved in that decision” to strike the deal.
Mr. Trump said that in the time Mr. Acosta has worked for him, the secretary has “done a fantastic job.”
As for Mr. Epstein, he said the financier was a social fixture in Palm Beach, Florida, and everyone knew him. But the two business titans had a “falling out.”
“I was not a fan of his,” Mr. Trump said. “I don’t think I’ve spoken to him for 15 years.”
Democrats on Capitol Hill said more is needed of the president.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Mr. Trump must do more to explain a 2002 quote praising Mr. Epstein as a “terrific guy” with an eye for pretty women. “Many of them are on the younger side,” Mr. Trump told New York magazine.
“The president needs to answer for his statements,” the New York Democrat said.
Mr. Schumer, in comments echoed by dozens of other Democrats, also said Mr. Acosta must quit or be fired by Mr. Trump.
Yet Democrats, who have the power to impeach a Cabinet official, were reluctant to go that far. They said investigations are likely, but said it’s up to Mr. Trump to oust the secretary.
“I don’t know how you impeach him for something that was done years before he took office,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, California Democrat. “I just think it brings shame toward government, and certainly to this administration, although they seem beyond shame.”
While Democrats sought to paint Mr. Epstein as a GOP problem, his donor history suggests he was a bigger political ally to Democrats, particularly around the turn of the century, when the crimes of which he stands accused occurred.
The Center for Responsive Politics says he donated $139,000 to Democrats and $18,000 to Republicans from 1989 to 2003, when his giving dropped. He did make a $10,000 donation to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year, but the money was quickly returned.
He also donated $2,700 in 2016 and another $2,700 last year to Delegate Stacey Plaskett, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ representative to Congress. Mr. Epstein owns a private island in the Virgin Islands.
Ms. Plaskett had said Monday she was keeping the cash, saying her “litmus test” was whether money had been made illegally, and Mr. Epstein’s money was still good.
But on Tuesday she reversed herself, saying she’ll give the money away to organizations in her district that work with women and children.
“I am uncomfortable having received money from someone who has been accused of these egregious actions multiple times,” Ms. Plaskett told CNBC.
Mr. Epstein stands accused of recruiting girls as young as 14 to provide nude massages and then escalating the encounters to include sex acts. He paid hundreds of dollars to the girls for each encounter, and also paid a bounty for each new girl his victims recruited, according to the indictment handed up in federal court in New York.
Prosecutors said he ran a “vast network of underage victims.”
Mr. Epstein pleaded not guilty to the new charges on Monday.
His previous run-in with the law came in Florida where Mr. Acosta, the U.S. attorney in Miami in 2007, agreed to scrap a 53-page indictment that could have put Mr. Epstein behind bars for the rest of his life. Instead, Mr. Epstein copped to a state prostitution charge and spent 13 months in jail.
Mr. Acosta suggested Tuesday it was the best outcome he could get at the time.
He did not address another part of the deal that prevented Mr. Epstein’s victims from learning about it until after it was finalized. A federal judge earlier this year ruled the agreement violated the law because of that.
The Justice Department is conducting a review of the handling of the case.
Attorney General William Barr said this week he’d recused himself from that review because of work a previous law firm did with Mr. Epstein.
But the Justice Department said Tuesday that Mr. Barr has concluded, after consulting with the department’s career ethics officials, that he need not recuse himself from the new case.
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