A Few Thoughts on the Acosta Presser

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta holds a press conference at the US Department of Labor on July 10, 2019 in Washington,DC. - Democratic Party leaders called on July 9, 2019 for the resignation of President Donald Tru... Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta holds a press conference at the US Department of Labor on July 10, 2019 in Washington,DC. - Democratic Party leaders called on July 9, 2019 for the resignation of President Donald Trump's secretary of labor over a secret plea deal he made a decade ago with a wealthy hedge fund manager accused of sexually abusing young girls. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, 50, was serving as a federal prosecutor in Florida when his office entered into the controversial plea agreement with financier Jeffrey Epstein. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images) MORE LESS
July 10, 2019 4:13 p.m.

I watched the Acosta presser live all the way through and here’s my take.

I found watching this Q&A weird and a bit baffling. I’m not an expert on the intricacies of this case. So – probably like many others – I wasn’t in a great position to evaluate all the factual claims, at least not in real time. What was jarring was that I had a general sense that Acosta’s office had allowed Epstein to get a pretty lenient deal, probably at least in part because he was a super wealthy, super connected guy and had the best lawyers working on his behalf. This would hardly be the first or only time such a thing has happened. But watching Acosta talk about it, suddenly it was like contrary to all that, everyone else was dropping the ball – particularly the state prosecutor – and Acosta was almost like the hero of the story.

Not notifying the victims of the deal? Well, he had an answer for that: he was protecting them from knowledge of restitution that could be used against them later. Cushy imprisonment? Well, that was out of his hands. He ever had affidavits from the career prosecutor and lead FBI agent apparently backing him up. (These were distributed to press at the beginning of the presser. So without time to read and absorb them during the presser itself.) Indeed, whatever else you can say about Acosta, there’s no denying he took questions. Indeed, he wouldn’t stop. He kept saying he was finishing up and then answering yet more questions. They could barely get him to shut up.

On all these points, it was pretty hard to believe it could really be such a night and day thing. But not knowing the details it was hard for me at least to zero in on what points Acosta was misstating. Because of that I was basically waiting to hear expert responses or at least responses from people deeply versed in the case.

They weren’t long in coming.

Having listened now to some of that commentary, it seems like it was pretty much a dodge as I figured it had to be but didn’t know the details as to why. To me, the biggest shortcoming in his argument was the idea that he had to make a deal at all. As a number of commentators have pointed out, Acosta’s argument was that he was presented with a situation in which the state was going to let Epstein off with a slap on the wrist and he had to step in and try to make sure there was at least a threshold level of accountability, by which he meant some jail time and registration as a sex offender.

The problem is that the other option was simply to keep investigating and making the case strong enough to bring to trial to the extent it was a “roll of the dice” going to trial.

Beyond this it was also clear the audience here was Trump. Acosta had what I can only call a no apologies, cocky affect and he repeatedly went in for digs at the press for not doing their job. This seemed like his version of appealing to Trump’s “never apologize”, be a counter puncher mantra. Through a lot of the presser he had what seemed like this slight grin on his face. Things only really got weird when he wordily declined to deny reports about being told to back off prosecuting Epstein.

Like Bill Barr’s notorious letter, this seems like the kind of performance that will never be better than it was the moment it ended. All downhill from there.

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