Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta's job in the Trump administration is safe for now, thanks to a live TV press conference that pleased White House officials worried about his role in a 2008 plea deal with billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
"I thought he did exactly what he wanted to do with the facts, laying out the facts today," acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters.
Trump aides, who watched the news conferences on TVs scattered around the White House, were relieved by Acosta's measured, lawyerly performance and were surprised that he spent nearly an hour answering questions, according to three people familiar with the situation.
"I thought he did well - he answered all of the questions convincingly and provided context and facts that have so far been absent in this news cycle," a former White House official said. "He was cool, calm and methodical despite fielding some obnoxious questions. He did what he needed to do."
At the news conference, the embattled official said he welcomed New York prosecutors' new charges that accuse Epstein of sex trafficking young women and underage girls. Acosta made a point of not directly apologizing to Epstein's victims, a show of strength aimed at pleasing President Donald Trump.
But it wasn't clear that Acosta's performance would quiet Democratic critics in Congress or a public stirred up by Epstein's re-arrest Saturday --or how long President Donald Trump will continue to stand by him.
In defending his prior prosecutor office's plea deal that allowed Epstein to only serve 13 months behind bars - much of it on work release - Acosta framed the decision as a more reliable outcome that prevented Epstein from walking free and also shielded his victims.
Referring to "hard to watch" victim interviews, Acosta cited an affidavit from one of the prosecutors in his office at the time that questioned the wisdom of putting Epstein's victims on the witness stand based on now-outdated norms concerning the treatment of accusers.
"She talks about the victims being scared and traumatized… refusing to testify, and how some victims actually exonerated Epstein. Most had significant concerns about their identities being revealed. The acts that they had faced were horrible and they didn't want people to know about them," Acosta explained.
He said that the prosecutor wrote that "'after the fact people allege that Epstein would have been easily convicted. As the prosecutor who handled the investigation … these contentions overlook the facts that existed at the time.'"
"My relationship with the president is outstanding," said Acosta. "He has very publicly made clear that I've got his support. He spoke yesterday in the Oval Office, he and I have spoken."
Acosta also said that Mulvaney "called to say that our relationship is excellent too." Acosta and some of his closest aides have sparred with the White House behind closed doors, with Mulvaney and other key advisers frustrated with the department's slow pace on deregulation. But at the news conference, Acosta characterized reports of such conflict as "BS."
Mulvaney told Trump Monday that the ballooning controversy surrounding the plea agreement would hurt the administration, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
Trump encouraged Acosta to hold the news conference, according to a person familiar with the matter, who added that the president "wants to get the truth out." Acosta wouldn't say whether that was true, but denied to reporters that his voluntary grilling, which lasted for nearly an hour, was meant "to send any signal to the president."
A growing number of Democrats are calling for his resignation, and more victims are coming forward to talk about Epstein's abuse over the years.
"While we can't count on our sexual predator president to take action, we can make sure the public knows just how dangerous it is to have a cabinet full of people who break the law and then try to get away with it," American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told POLITICO in a written statement Wednesday. "Alex Acosta helped protect a child sex trafficker and he must resign, or the president must fire him."
An aide to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), said that Acosta's statements at the press conference did not change Murray's mind about Acosta resigning. On Wednesday, Murray and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) also asked the Justice Department for an update on its ethics investigation into the plea deal.
At the news conference, Acosta asserted that the current environment is much more favorable to victims of abuse than it was more than a decade ago.
"Today we know a lot more about how victims' trauma impacts their testimony," he said. "Our juries are more accepting of contradictory statements, understanding that trauma-impacted memories work differently. And today our judges do not allow victim shaming by defense attorneys."
"Without the work of our prosecutors, Epstein would have gotten away with just that state charge," Acosta said. "Now many today question the terms of that ultimatum, what's called a non-prosecution agreement. A good prosecutor will tell you these cases are complex. Especially when they involve children. And even more so in 2006."
He defended the leniency of the agreement, asserting that to bring Epstein to trial would have amounted to a "roll of the dice" and that had his office not intervened, Epstein would have served no jail time.
"The goal here was straightforward: Put Epstein behind bars, ensure he registered as a sexual offender, provide victims with the means to seek restitution, and protect the public by putting them on notice that a sexual predator was in their midst," he argued.
The Labor secretary was unequivocal in his condemnation of Epstein, saying that his crimes "absolutely deserve a stiffer sentence."
"He's a bad man and he needs to be put away," Acosta later added.
The press-shy Labor secretary has stayed mostly silent in recent days as federal prosecutors in New York filed new charges against Epstein for allegedly sexually abusing underage girls.
But he came out swinging against the press on Wednesday, repeatedly referencing public documents he implied were being omitted from reporting about the case. Claiming he'd supplied the reporters in the room with those documents, he said that "one of the really disturbing things about this case is, there's a record here."
"The documents that I shared today, we've shared previously with media," he said, "yet I've seen no reference to any of these documents in the perspective of some of these prosecutors. There's a record, all of these documents are publicly available and could have been pulled up by anyone in the room."
Earlier in the news conference, he mused that he found it "interesting ... how facts become facts because they're in a newspaper as opposed to the record."
Acosta's defense was designed to be a "Kavanaugh 2.0" rebuttal in an effort to impress Trump, according to a former administration official familiar with the matter. While Acosta's performance was more subdued that Kavanaugh's, it still provided him temporary protection.
"He's boring and not animated and that's very good for the Secretary in this whole salacious Epstein ordeal," said a current DOL official familiar with the matter.
"It's not about substance. It's optics and politics and such," the official added with a measure of caution. "He does need this to get pushed off the front page soon."
Acosta's appearance came the same day that House Oversight Democrats asked Acosta to appear before the committee on July 23. In a letter, Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) told Acosta his testimony is "even more critical" given the new indictment in New York. Hours before, a new accuser had come forward alleging Epstein raped her in his Manhattan apartment in 2002.
Acosta said on Tuesday that he supported the New York prosecutors' decision even as he defended the earlier plea agreement. He has argued that the Epstein case was handed to him after a state grand jury recommended an even lesser charge, and has said the decision to grant Epstein daily furloughs to his office was made after the plea deal by the state of Florida.
"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," Acosta tweeted. "Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice."
Burgess Everett and Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.