Democratic lawmakers have a few questions for Alexander Acosta. President Donald Trump’s labor secretary has been summoned to appear before the House Oversight and Reform Committee to explain his role in the 2008 plea deal given to Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy financier accused of sexually abusing and trafficking scores of teenage girls.
Concerns about the degree to which Epstein received lenient treatment thanks to his affluence and connections have been percolating since November, when an investigative series by a Miami Herald reporter, Julie Brown, revived interest in the case. Acosta does not come off well as the U.S. attorney who worked hand-in-glove with Epstein’s legal team on the secret nonprosecution agreement that shielded him from federal charges, ended a related FBI investigation and granted immunity to any co-conspirators. When a new indictment against Epstein was unsealed in a federal court in New York on Monday, the resulting outcry spurred the White House to push the labor secretary to hold a news conference Wednesday to defend himself.
Unimpressed by the litany of self-justifications offered by Acosta, House Democrats are now bringing their oversight authority to bear.
This is a mistake. There’s no doubt that the judicial system must examine the accusations against Epstein, and that the Justice Department will have many questions about Acosta’s apparent leniency toward him. Congress digging into this case, however, is a poor use of lawmakers’ limited time and resources.
More dangerous, in the midst of the Trump administration’s war on congressional oversight in general, such hearings carry a high risk of turning the Epstein case into a partisan battle — and Acosta into a political martyr around whom the president and his followers feel moved to rally.
At this point, anyone who has shaken hands with Epstein in recent decades should be scrutinized. And that list needs to include people of all political persuasions, including the current and a former president. The federal indictment is already surfacing new evidence — like the stash of photos of young women discovered in the raid on the defendant’s Upper East Side mansion — and new accusers.
On a separate but related track, on July 3, a federal appeals court in New York ordered the immediate unsealing of nearly 2,000 pages of records related to the accusations against Epstein. There’s also the continuing internal review by the Justice Department — opened in February in response to bipartisan pressure from Congress — into whether there was any “professional misconduct” by department officials, including Acosta, in the handling of Epstein’s original case.
Acosta’s appearance before House members right now is unlikely to bring much more light to the situation. At best, having lawmakers grill him will give the issue a political rather than a criminal cast. And the second a Democratic member suggests that Acosta is emblematic of the rot at the heart of the Trump presidency, the partisan battle lines will harden.
Already, some Democrats are easing down this path. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, accused the president of “coddling” Acosta, which she said should surprise no one considering all the sexual assault allegations facing Trump.
The Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, has declared that Trump must answer for his past relationship with Epstein, particularly having appointed Acosta “to such a powerful position.” (Schumer himself announced Wednesday that he would donate to charity the equivalent of thousands of dollars Epstein contributed to his campaigns in the 1990s.)
Various Trump defenders, including Rush Limbaugh and Kellyanne Conway, have complained that Democrats and Trump-haters are focusing on Acosta rather than Epstein as a way to get at the president.
Trump has stuck by Acosta thus far, saying that he feels “badly” about what the secretary is going through and praising him for doing a “fantastic job.” Administration officials say that the president is still in wait-and-see mode. Insiders have also been spreading the word that some senior aides, including Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff, have been underwhelmed by Acosta’s deregulatory zeal and see the Epstein scandal as an excuse to show the secretary the door.
It’s not as though House Democrats don’t have plenty on their plate. The oversight committee alone is holding hearings on the administration’s inhumane border policies, its push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, its efforts to undermine Obamacare, its handling of for-profit colleges and predatory lenders and possible violations of the Hatch Act, as well as broader questions regarding election security and climate change policy — or the lack thereof. In many cases, the White House is hindering or actively stonewalling these efforts, making Congress’ investigative work as difficult and time-consuming as possible.
Bottom line: Lawmakers could stay busy from now until Election Day examining the policy outrages and questionable behavior by this administration.
As for Acosta’s past failures as a federal prosecutor, better to let the legal system and the court of public opinion carry this particular burden. Some outrages are best kept as free of partisan politics as possible.