Full Episode: #WashWeekPBS full episode: Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigns

Jul. 12, 2019 AT 9:39 p.m. EDT
After President Donald Trump accepted Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s resignation Friday, the panelists discussed the Jeffery Epstein case and Acosta’s role in his plea deal. The conversation then turned to immigration, including the recent dropping of the census citizenship question, upcoming ICE raids, and Democratic infighting over detention center funding.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Another Cabinet member steps down and deportation raids loom. I’m Robert Costa. Welcome to Washington Week.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Until this came up there was never an ounce of problem with this very good man.

MR. COSTA: President Trump accepts the resignation of Labor Secretary Alex Acosta. The exit comes as Acosta’s handling of Jeffrey Epstein’s 2008 sex crimes case is under scrutiny and Epstein faces new charges in New York.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) We cannot have as one of the leading appointed officials in America someone who has done this.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) They came in illegally, they go out legally.

MR. COSTA: Immigration crackdown; nationwide raids are planned for this weekend. And the president drops his Census fight, but pledges to pursue citizenship data in other ways, next.

ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week. Once again, from Washington, moderator Robert Costa.

MR. COSTA: Labor Secretary Alex Acosta long hovered under the radar in President Trump’s Washington, but a plea deal he brokered in 2008 for Jeffrey Epstein has cast a shadow over him, and this week it effectively forced him out following developments that brought up tough questions about his judgment. Federal prosecutors in New York charged Epstein on Monday with new sex crimes. Acosta’s critics said he was too soft on Epstein a decade ago. On Wednesday Acosta defended himself at a news conference.

LABOR SECRETARY ALEX ACOSTA: (From video.) This was the view of the office, there is a value to a sure guilty plea. Because letting him walk, letting what the state attorney was ready to do, go forward, would have been absolutely awful.

MR. COSTA: But the firestorm did not fade, and Acosta submitted his resignation to the president on Friday.

LABOR SECRETARY ALEX ACOSTA: (From video.) It would be selfish for me to stay in this position and continue talking about a case that’s 12 years old rather than about the amazing economy we have right now, and so I submitted my resignation to the president effective seven days from today.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I just want to let you know this was him, not me, because I’m with him.

MR. COSTA: Joining me tonight, Paula Reid, White House correspondent for CBS News; Philip Rucker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post; Kimberly Atkins, senior Washington correspondent for WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station; and Jerry Seib, executive Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal.

Paula, you cover the Department of Justice and the White House. You’ve been tracking the New York prosecutors. Why did they decide to come back on the Epstein case a decade later? What prompted this action over last weekend?

PAULA REID: Some great reporting by the Miami Herald. The story around Epstein had really gone stale, but over the last year the Miami Herald started digging into these allegations against Epstein once again, and they uncovered this 2007-2008 plea deal that had been brokered by then-U.S. Attorney Acosta to help resolve these allegations of misconduct against young women by Mr. Epstein, and under this deal he got just 13 months and this also gave him immunity from federal charges. Well, earlier this year a federal judge found that this deal violated the victims’ rights because they did not disclose to the victims that they were negotiating this plea deal. The Justice Department opened another investigation, and then we saw earlier this week these new charges and these new allegations. These occurred between 2002 and 2005.

MR. COSTA: And many of Acosta’s critics said the deal he struck in 2008 was too soft, that he could have went forward. Acosta said he did what he could but the state prosecutors wouldn’t move forward enough. Did his argument hold up?

KIMBERLY ATKINS: Yeah, the explanation that he gave really left a lot of folks like me scratching their heads. It was a false choice. He said he could have either allowed him to walk free under state prosecution or negotiate this deal, which is the only deal that he could negotiate, which absolutely isn’t true. As a prosecutor he had discretion over that. He certainly could have at the very least notified the victims. But the fact that he didn’t is what led to this entire controversy, that he was entirely too soft given what we see now is the severity of the charges. I mean, this is really, really serious, horrific trafficking of people underage, and that he got 13 months is just really remarkable.

MR. COSTA: Let’s go over those charges. On Monday federal prosecutors in New York indicted Epstein on new charges: one count of sex trafficking of minors, one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking. Epstein pleaded not guilty. According to the indictment Epstein and a friend were running a, quote, “vast network of underage girls for sex,” some as young as 14, and they say the 66-year-old financier knew the victims were under 18. I’m so glad we have two attorneys here in Paula and Kim. We also have a great bureau chief in Phil Rucker. President Trump was watching this, this Wednesday news conference. What did he take away, and why did Epstein end up resigning – excuse me, why did Acosta end up resigning?

PHILIP RUCKER: Yeah, so Trump wanted Acosta to do this news conference, wanted his secretary to get out there to defend himself against these headlines, against these allegations that he had done something wrong as the U.S. attorney, but the performance was not the kind of performance we’re used to from people when they’re trying to please the president. He lacked passion. He lacked indignation. You’ll remember when Brett Kavanagh, in his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, defended himself, he did so with a lot of vigor and passion and indignation and anger, and Trump really liked that. And so I think Trump wasn’t sure what to make of Acosta’s performance, started asking around, and fast forward to Friday and Acosta’s out.

MR. COSTA: And he also did not apologize to the victims, Jerry.

GERALD SEIB: Yeah, and I think – I think the way the victims were treated may have been the biggest part of the – at least the public relations problem here, maybe even the legal problem too; not telling the victims what you were doing struck a lot of people, I think, as kind of the worst of the sins that were committed down in Florida. But I think the backdrop of this that’s really important to remember is that this is just continuing turnover within the Trump administration, a remarkable level of turnover. I did sort of a scoresheet for myself today: nine Cabinet secretaries have resigned. We’re now – we have an administration that has acting or temporary, not permanent White House chief of staff, homeland security secretary, defense secretary, U.N. ambassador, head of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement service. Those are all temporary, not permanent people. There’s a lot of turnover, and it is kind of administration on autopilot to some extent. You know, the White House will blame Democrats in the Senate for not confirming people fast enough, but that’s not the – that’s not the core of this problem.

MR. COSTA: Phil mentioned how the president was watching Secretary Acosta’s performance, but White House officials I was talking to also said the president wanted to distance himself from the relationship with Jeffrey Epstein he had in Palm Beach decades ago, in the 1990s, at the Mar-a-Lago club. Paula actually asked President Trump about that relationship in the Oval Office earlier this week. Let’s see that.

MS. REID: (From video.) Mr. President, do you –

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) OK, anybody else?

MS. REID: (From video.) – still think Jeffrey Epstein is a terrific guy?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Well, I knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him. I mean, people in Palm Beach knew him; he was a fixture in Palm Beach. I had a falling out with him a long time ago. I don’t think I’ve spoken to him for 15 years. I wasn’t a fan.

MS. REID: (From video.) What was that falling out about?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I was not – yeah, a long time ago. I’d say maybe 15 years. I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you. I was not a fan of his.

MR. COSTA: The president’s words, “not a fan,” but what is the real history here?

MS. REID: Well, back in 2002 for a profile on Epstein in New York Magazine, the president was quoted as saying that he thought Epstein was a terrific guy and the two had been friends for 15 years. The president noted that they shared a taste for beautiful women, but he even noted in that article that Epstein tended to like them on the younger side. So it’s interesting here in the Oval Office earlier this week he’s like, yeah, I don’t really like the guy, we had a falling out. But what’s so strange is that he would not answer earlier this week what that falling out was about. So earlier today at the White House, when he had this press availability, I pressed him again, and he tried to dismiss it. He said it doesn’t matter. I said it does matter. Was this a business dispute or was this about his abuse of underage girls? He confirmed a story that has been out there that he threw him out of Mar-a-Lago after there were complaints about Epstein’s behavior towards young women. But again, I find it unusual that the president nor the White House would confirm that story as the reason for their falling out all week.

MR. COSTA: Phil, you have a White House that says this issue is now dead because Secretary Acosta’s going away. They say President Clinton also knew Epstein. And his office – President Clinton’s – issued a statement this week that read in part, quote, “President Clinton knows” about nothing – “nothing about these terrible crimes that Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida” some years ago, and the statement goes on to say that Clinton has not spoken with Epstein in well over a decade. So that’s what conservatives and Republicans are saying. Does this issue go away for President Trump?

MR. RUCKER: No, I don’t think the issue goes away until President Trump offers a fuller accounting of his relationship with Epstein. I mean, Epstein’s behavior with women, as Paula was just noting from the 2002 article, from Trump’s quote in that article, has been an open secret in Palm Beach for years. We need to try to know, what did Trump know? When did he know it? Did he know that Epstein was with these younger women? Did he do anything about it? Could he have witnessed some of this behavior? Who knows? Did it happen at it his clubs? We don’t know, but these are all questions the president’s going to continue to face until he answers them.

MR. COSTA: Is the character question something that could be a factor?

MR. SEIB: Yeah, I think so. I mean, you – we are in the #MeToo era, right? And so these things have particular resonance right now. And I think, you know, the question of who knew what and when did they know it is an inescapable one in a situation like this.

And you have to remember also, there’s going to be an ongoing legal proceeding now. This is going to be played out in the courts. It’s not going to go away because it’s going to be on full display in courtrooms up in New York for some time to come.

MR. COSTA: Jerry brought up how now there’s so many acting secretaries inside of this government. You also have a new person at the Department of Labor, Patrick Pizzella, a conservative favorite. Was Secretary Acosta also facing pressure from conservatives, not just over the Epstein case?

MS. ATKINS: Absolutely.


MS. ATKINS: I mean, when I was talking to Republicans close to the White House and on the Hill this week, their number-one complaint was about the job that Acosta was doing, not necessarily his treatment of this case at the time. They believe that he was not rolling back regulatory efforts fast enough, sort of rolling back the Obama regulations with the speed and gusto that President Trump wanted. And they wanted him out already. And so the pressure that built up, it was actually a concern that Donald Trump wanting to fight the Democrats’ call for his resignation might keep him in office longer. But all of those things seemed to converge, as well as his lackluster defense of himself seemed to converge to make it untenable.

MR. SEIB: And some of those complaints were coming from the business community also, and that’s a voice that’s heard in this White House as well.

MR. COSTA: They thought he was too close to the unions or –

MR. SEIB: Not fast enough rolling back regulations.

MS. ATKINS: Rolling back regulations, fiduciary duty regulations, regulations involving workplace rules, just wanting to be more pro-business.

MR. SEIB: Now, I think to be – to be fair to Secretary Acosta, I think his argument was, look, if you don’t do these things carefully, then you may roll them back and you’ll find in the courts that they get rolled back forward again. And we’ve seen that in this administration. So his argument was do it slowly, but do it right.

MR. COSTA: One last thing on the DOJ front. Where does Robert Mueller’s testimony stand? He was supposed to come to Capitol Hill next week. Is that on? Is that off?

MR. REID: It’s up in the air right now. He is still expected to come on Wednesday, but there were some concerns that his testimony would be limited to only senior members of these committees because of the time restrictions. So some of the younger members were pushing to try to get this moved so they, too, could have an opportunity to ask the former special counsel questions. Robert Mueller, I’m told, is open to this, but as of right now it’s not clear if it will officially be pushed to the following week.

MR. COSTA: So the testimony is officially set now for July 24th. Just in tonight, we got some breaking news on that. But as you say, with Congress and the DOJ, you never want to say it’s set in stone.

Let’s turn to the Census because President Trump backed off his battle to insert a citizenship question into that Census for next year. Instead, he ordered a sweep of all federal databases for existing citizenship information. This comes as the administration readies a nationwide enforcement operation to arrest and deport undocumented people this weekend.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Whether the issue is health care, education, civil rights or immigration, we must have a reliable count of how many citizens, noncitizens and illegal aliens are in our country.

MR. COSTA: Attorney General Bill Barr suggested that having more information about noncitizens is essential for congressional districting.

ATTORNEY GENERAL WILLIAM BARR: (From video.) There is a current dispute over whether illegal aliens can be included for apportionment purposes. Depending on the resolution of that dispute, this data may be relevant to those considerations. We will be studying this issue.

MR. COSTA: Opponents argue the legal battle and public debate could have a chilling effect on undocumented immigrants who could be afraid to participate in the Census. Phil, the administration wanted to take this hard line on immigration, using the Census as a way to insert a citizenship question. Did the Supreme Court force their hand to back off?

MR. RUCKER: They did. I mean, the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land and had a ruling that the administration ultimately concluded they had to follow. President Trump’s instinct was to dig in and fight on this and that’s partly because he saw political advantage. He thought his conservative base would want to see him fighting for the citizenship question. It polls very well with Republicans and with conservatives and it’s a very sort of simple issue for folks who support Trump to rally behind. And he thought this was galvanizing his supporters, but there was not a legal path for the administration to put that question on the Census, either by executive order or to challenge it in the courts. And so ultimately Trump gave up, this is a concession on the part of the administration.

MR. COSTA: Census experts, Kim, say that maps based only on the citizen population would reflect an electorate that is more white and less diverse. And the administration is now out there saying they’re moving in that direction.

MS. ATKINS: Yeah, and by default by that, it would make it more Republican, it would strip Democrats of power and embolden Republican districts. That’s precisely why, up to now, all residents have been considered when drawing maps because – think about it – a lot of things are based on this, not just the congressional maps, but also federal funding and people who are in the country, whether – I mean, we’re talking also people who have visas who can be in the country legally, they are using the services, they are just as much a concern of the people in that – in the district as everybody else. So to deny funding to them would only hurt everyone in those districts and that’s the argument of Democrats.

But Phil is exactly right. This was an immigration fight. The president sees immigration as the key issue for him in 2020 to get reelected and to please his base and he is going to bang that drum any way he can.

MR. COSTA: And what do we make of the attorney general’s play here, congratulating the president? He had some trouble in the courts with DOJ lawyers earlier in the week. What’s next for Bill Barr?

MR. REID: Oh, God, I wouldn’t even pretend to guess what Bill Barr is going to do next because he has truly surprised me. I mean, you speak to him in person, you get a sense of why he took this job, a sense of duty. Yes, he has an expansive view of executive power, but he has consistently surprised at both his handling of the special counsel investigation and even this issue, because career attorneys were clear, they said, look, the Supreme Court said you’re not going to be able to get a Census citizenship question on the 2020 Census. When the president insisted, Barr was still looking for options for the president.

It’s not clear, though, that this idea that you’re going to cull databases will actually provide them with the information they’re looking for. We pressed the president on this. He suggested loan applications were going to be one trove of information from the federal government.

But again, yes, William Barr also saying that it was rampant speculation that there was going to be an executive order. The president was the one who said he was considering an executive order.

MR. SEIB: But I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that this controversy has pushed the whole country up to the edge of a very big debate, which is, how do you decide how to apportion congressional districts? Is it “persons”? That’s the word used in the Constitution. Or is it eligible voters or citizens? That is a huge question and it’s never really been decided by the Supreme Court.

In the ruling the court made on the particular Census case that you referred to, Justice Ginsburg said, you know, we’re not settling that question here, that’s going to come at another time. When we get to that point, that’s going to be an explosive debate in this country.

MR. COSTA: Let’s talk about the latest reporting on immigration. We just got a pool report in just minutes ago from Josh Dawsey of The Washington Post. He’s with Vice President Pence down in Texas at a McAllen border station. He was with them tonight.

He saw hundreds of men, Phil, in cage-like atmosphere down in Texas. He was brought in as the pool reporter. He captured images that if you go to his Twitter account you’ll see. And it’s ricocheting now around online as a real glimpse into what’s happening at the border, that it’s a crisis. How is this administration handling it?

MR. RUCKER: Yeah. So this was a tour that the vice president along with a number of Republican members of Congress were taking in Texas. And the conditions that Dawsey described were truly horrific. These people were – men, all of them men – were nearly 400 piled into a cage. There’s not even enough room on the floor for cots. The stench in the room was very bad. Very hot, sweltering heat, no air conditioning, really bad conditions.

And this is going to ricochet, I think, for the president because the president has maintained that the conditions in these facilities are good and better than what these immigrants have come from in their home countries. And here his own vice president is doing a tour, which you’d think the immigration officials down there would have these facilities be clean and presentable for the vice president and he saw anything but.

MR. COSTA: Here’s what Vice President Pence said, quote, “I was not surprised by what I saw.” Pence said later at a news conference, “I knew we’d see a system that was overwhelmed.”

MS. ATKINS: Yeah. I mean, saying that you expected an overwhelmed system and calling on Democrats to send more funding there I don’t think is a – is going to work as an adequate response from this administration to these pictures. I mean, there are literally people in cages, some of whom haven’t been able to bathe in over a week. They said they – in real time, these folks were denying claims that they were getting three meals a day, that they were getting access to hygiene. I think that’s going to be a really, really tough image to rebut.

MR. COSTA: So where does this all go? You have the vice president in Texas. You have ICE raids scheduled to start this weekend. Who’s being targeted? According to The New York Times, officials said ICE agents were targeting at least 2,000 immigrants who have been ordered deported, some as a result of their failure to appear in court. And at least 10 cities are going to be involved in these raids.

You have the pictures now from the pool report, the ICE raids starting this weekend. What does this mean for Congress?

MR. SEIB: Well, look, I think there are two – there’s a short-term and a long-term answer. The short-term answer is that I think people are going to respond to this kind of picture of the conditions on the border – and I’m talking about Democrats and Republicans alike – and want to do something about it. And that’s, I think, going to be a bipartisan impulse here; I don’t think anybody’s going to say no. But there’s a huge issue, as you said, in the 2020 campaign, and it’s just going to get bigger and bigger.

MR. COSTA: And there’s a real debate in the Democratic Party about how to respond to all of this – the raids, the pictures. During a House Oversight Committee hearing about President Trump’s immigration policy, lawmakers testified about the conditions at migrant detention centers.

REPRESENTATIVE ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D-NY): (From video.) This is a manufactured crisis because there is no need for us to do this. There’s no need for us to overcrowd and to detain and underresource. There is no need for us to arrest innocent people and treat them no differently than criminals when they are pursuing their basic human rights.

MR. COSTA: Representative Ocasio-Cortez is saying Democrats should essentially not deal with President Trump on immigration. Then you have a speaker of the House who has clashed with her and her allies this week, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, about strategy for the Democratic Party. Where does it go?

MS. REID: At some point they do need to come together and resolve the issue of asylum. I mean, at some point they need to decide how you can seek asylum in the U.S., and if you have these large numbers of people coming here to seek asylum how will you care for them. Do you want to detain them? Do you want to let people free? Do you want to keep families together? They do have to at some point come together, decide on how to proceed with our asylum laws and how to care for people in this country. I mean, the president argues that, you know, Democrats aren’t doing enough; Democrats argue that he is treating people inhumanely. But to be blunt the system is not designed to hold this many people, and it is true that our law enforcement officials along the border, they are not nurses, they are not – you know, they are not trained to care for people in this – in this large volume.

MR. COSTA: What do you make of the speaker this week? She still has to deal with the president on trade, USMCA, still has to deal with him on the debt limit, the budget, yet she’s getting this pressure from the left.

MR. RUCKER: She’s getting a lot of pressure from the – from the left, and another issue that she’s feeling heat on is the question of impeachment and what to do about Trump after the Mueller report, because she has been trying to delay any sort of decision about impeachment proceedings and increasingly her caucus, her membership in the House, is frustrated and agitated and they want to see some action.

MR. SEIB: I think one of the lessons here, don’t mess with Nancy Pelosi. I mean, you know, she’s tough, and I think that people in her caucus know that, Democrats know that, Republicans and conservatives who have dealt with them – with her over the years know that as well. And I think she is basically trying to guide her caucus down a center path because she’s got to worry not just about AOC and members from blue districts, she’s got to worry about members – 31 of them – who won in 2018 in districts that Donald Trump carried in the 2016 presidential election. She’s got a broader caucus than maybe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez realizes.

MR. COSTA: Well, she told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times in an interview that they have a Twitter following, but she says I have power. And when she was asked whether she regretted her comments, her sharp words about their four votes against her House version of an immigration bill, she said no regrets.

MS. ATKINS: Yeah, she doesn’t do regrets. (Laughter.) That was a little – that was a little Trumpian, frankly, coming from her. Look, I think all those things are true. She also has the problem that not just these four lawmakers want to see things done, not just in their districts but when it comes to things like the situation at the border. Phil’s absolutely right about the growing number of people, including her allies now, who are calling for impeachment proceedings at least to begin. I think at some point they’re going to have to move forward and that she can’t just hold the line.

MR. COSTA: Well, where does it move? Is it toward an asylum deal between Pelosi and Trump, or it toward impeachment? Do the Democrats just say, enough of this?

MR. SEIB: Well, look, I mean, there is a – there is a push toward impeachment, but I think the calendar’s running out on that, frankly. I mean, you can’t start an impeachment proceeding at the end of the year before a general – I don’t think you can, anyway.

MS. REID: No, you shouldn’t, and it’s not what voters want. Voters want answers. They want answers on drug prices, infrastructure, perhaps immigration as well. They don’t want to see an impeachment debate. I think that’s why she’s trying to steer people away from that. Furthermore, as Robert Mueller’s eventual testimony will show, it’s not clear that they have a sufficient case to pursue impeachment. This question of obstruction was ambiguous. Is this really the case you want to go on, or do you want to see what happens in the Southern District of New York with these other questions on campaign finance violations, potential tax fraud, loan fraud, and maybe if he’s reelected then pursue that issue?

MR. COSTA: Does the hard line continue, Phil, when the images that we see from Twitter from Dawsey and others at the border today – does this pull this administration back at all in the coming days, or is it raids and everything else?

MR. RUCKER: I don’t think so. I mean, we’ve had a number of moments like this where we’ve seen true kind of human horror at the border, and the president has not reacted with empathy and not changed his policy.

MR. COSTA: We’ll keep tracking that story and many others. Thanks, everybody, for being here tonight. We’ll have more on the Washington Week Extra. Watch it on our website or YouTube Friday – every Friday – starting at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

I’m Robert Costa. Have a great weekend.


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