President Donald Trump defended his embattled labor secretary, Alex Acosta, on Tuesday and said that he had a "falling out" with politically connected sex offender Jeffrey Epstein a number of years ago.
“I had a falling out with him a long time ago,” Trump told reporters at the White House about his relationship with Epstein, who was arrested over the weekend on sex trafficking charges. “I don’t think I’ve spoken to him for 15 years.”
“I was not a fan of his. That I can tell you,” Trump added. Trump did not respond to a question about what the falling out was about.
Epstein, 66, was arrested over the weekend and charged in the Southern District of New York with sex trafficking dozens of girls as young as 14 in New York and Florida.
In an earlier case, in 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty to procuring a person under 18 for prostitution and felony solicitation of prostitution, which required him to register as a sex offender and serve about a year in a Florida county jail. He was able to leave almost daily for work, and was allowed to have his own private security detail behind bars.
Trump told reporters at the White House that Epstein was “a fixture in Palm Beach” and said, "I knew him like everyone in Palm Beach knew him."
In 2002, Trump told New York magazine that he'd known Epstein "for 15 years," calling him a "terrific guy."
"He's a lot of fun to be with," Trump said then. "It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life."
Acosta, who was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida at the time of the original Epstein criminal case, has faced calls from Democrats to resign his Cabinet post following the latest Epstein charges. But Trump praised Acosta on Tuesday for his job performance.
"He's been just an excellent secretary of labor," Trump said, before suggesting that multiple officials, in addition to Acosta, were responsible for how the 2008 case turned out — and that they probably "would wish they'd maybe done it a different way."
"If you go back and look at everybody else’s decisions, whether it’s a U.S. attorney, or an assistant U.S. attorney, or a judge, 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’d maybe done it a different way," Trump said.
"I do hear there were a lot of people involved in that decision, not just him," he said. "You’re talking about a long time ago. And again it was a decision made, I think, not by him but by a lot of people."
Trump added that he felt “very badly” for Acosta.
Two White House sources and another source familiar with the dynamics told NBC News that some inside the White House, including chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, have grown dissatisfied with Acosta due largely to what they perceive as a lack of urgency on deregulation — an issue of particular importance to the president.
But, sources caution, it’s too early to determine whether that faction will use this latest Epstein development as ammunition to try and have Acosta ousted.
Acosta's office reached the secret non-prosecution deal in 2008 with the wealthy financier to halt the federal sex abuse investigation involving dozens of teenage girls in return for him pleading guilty to lower state charges involving a single victim.
Earlier Tuesday, Acosta defended his role in securing the deal for Epstein.
The latest charges against Epstein, however, allege that Epstein trafficked girls as young as 14 in New York and Florida during the same time period as the earlier Florida probe. The 2008 agreement with Acosta's office did not protect Epstein from being prosecuted for alleged crimes in parts of the country other than South Florida, and prosecutors in New York say their case involves new victims and new evidence, including a cache of incriminating pictures that were found in a vault in Epstein's Manhattan mansion.