STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Labor Secretary Alex Acosta has at least one prominent defender. President Trump spoke of the cabinet secretary who's now questioned for a decision he made in a sex crimes case years ago.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I feel very badly, actually, for Secretary Acosta because I've known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job. I feel very badly about that whole situation.
INSKEEP: That whole situation refers to a plea agreement struck when Alex Acosta was a U.S. attorney in Florida. Financier Jeffrey Epstein was accused of soliciting prostitution from a minor. He pleaded guilty to state charges, also got a federal nonprosecution agreement and spent his nights in prison for 13 months while leaving during the day for work. Now Epstein has been indicted on dozens of additional cases of abusing minors, cases that date back to the early 2000s before the plea deal. So Alex Acosta faces calls from some lawmakers to quit his current job as labor secretary. What does Jon Tester think? He's a Democratic senator from Montana who voted for Acosta's confirmation and is in our studio. Senator, good morning.
JON TESTER: It's good to be with you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Is this plea deal defensible?
TESTER: Well, I don't think so. And I'll tell you why. First of all, he plead to prostitution when, in fact, this was sex trafficking of 14-year-old girls. I've got a granddaughter that's 14. These are middle-school kids, OK? - number one. Number two, the victims weren't there when all the decisions came down. And I don't think they were honest with the victims. In fact, I was told they were actually moved - the decision was moved away from the region where the problem was, a court - the court where the - area where the court was. And quite frankly, I just think Acosta did some things that are unforgiving and fatal to his position as secretary of labor, somebody who is going to have to deal with human trafficking as secretary of labor.
INSKEEP: Meaning - are you saying that he must resign?
TESTER: Yes. Yeah, he should go. And I supported him. I voted for him initially. I regret that. If I'd known the information I know today, I wouldn't have done that. But I felt that President Trump needs to have the people he wants to work with unless they have a fatal flaw. I think this is a fatal flaw.
INSKEEP: Now Acosta - Alex Acosta has defended his conduct. He said, quote, "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." Is that true?
TESTER: Well, I just think that if you take a look at what he did - he didn't follow the Crime Victims' Protection Act (ph), which is a given - something that Congress passed.
INSKEEP: Meaning, let's consult the victim to see if they're OK with this.
TESTER: That's exactly correct. Let's consult the victim and find out if they're OK. The victim role in this is critically important. They're the ones that are going to hold the judge accountable, and they weren't there. And so I just think that if you take a look at the whole of this, what Epstein did was just about as horrible of an act as I can think of. And it appeared to me that Acosta was looking for ways to make the punishment as mild as possible.
INSKEEP: Epstein was connected to at least two presidents - the current president, President Trump, as well as former President Bill Clinton. Each have made statements about Epstein. President Trump has said, well, I had a falling-out with him. I'm not friends with him - although he had said publicly in the past, he was great friends with them, and he's been photographed with him, spent time with him. Former President Bill Clinton has acknowledged taking flights on Epstein's private planes but says he knew nothing of this misconduct, nothing of these alleged crimes. What do you want to know about the conduct of each president?
TESTER: Well, I think - for right now, I think the focus needs just to be to stay on Acosta because Acosta is the issue that's up there. I think it's important to know what the presidents did in relationship to Epstein, but for this moment in time, it's more about Acosta's decision as a judge that put him in a position to be appointed as secretary of labor. And quite frankly, if those decisions that he made - and I think they were improper, incorrect and may have had an agenda behind them - I will leave that for further discussion. But the end of the story is that I don't think Acosta did his job as a judge. And I think that the fact that he didn't let the victims - didn't have the victims there, which is required by law, which is a no-brainer, disqualifies him because he's going to be handling cases as secretary of labor that deals with human trafficking.
INSKEEP: I want to follow up briefly about the two presidents - the current one and the former one.
INSKEEP: We don't want to do guilt by association. There are probably lots of people who knew Epstein and may have known very little or nothing or not been sure about his alleged behavior. But do you want there to be a fuller investigation that identifies anybody who may have had any involvement here?
TESTER: Well, I mean, that's an interesting point. I think there's a lot of things that take care of - that we need to take care of here in Washington, D.C., that are very important. And I think that if there is some association here by the president or former President Clinton that would indicate they were part of what Epstein was doing, then that's fine. But I do not believe that's the case personally. And so I think you take it - you deal with the issue that's in front of us. And the issue that's in front of us is, is Secretary Acosta fit for the job of secretary of labor? And I do not believe he is, and I think he should resign.
INSKEEP: Senator, thanks. Appreciate it.
TESTER: Good to talk to you.
INSKEEP: Jon Tester is a Democratic senator from Montana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.