Back in 2008, when Alex Acosta was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, his office secretly cut a sweetheart deal for child rapist and sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Now Acosta has been watching as increasingly damning evidence piles up, revealing that he was responsible for letting Epstein off the hook the first time around, and filters into the public consciousness. So he took a page from Donald Trump’s sexual assault impunity playbook at a press conference on Wednesday and denied any responsibility for any of his actions, refused to apologize to hundreds of victims who were children at the time, and instead blamed everyone from state prosecutors to the victims themselves. On Friday morning, he resigned as secretary of labor, but it hardly seems like enough.
Thanks to dogged reporting from Julie K. Brown at the Miami Herald, we know that a 53-page indictment drafted by Acosta’s own office was based on the statements of dozens of victims, and yet Acosta still brokered a plea deal allowing Epstein to register as a sex offender and spend just 13 months in the Palm Beach County jail. Epstein was allowed to be picked up by a car on 12 hours of daily work release from the prison, six days a week. A Florida judge ruled earlier this year that the non-prosecution agreement violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because the witnesses were never consulted or informed that it had happened.
Epstein was charged Monday, by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, with running a sex trafficking operation. A search of his home revealed hundreds if not thousands of images of naked women, and, according to federal authorities, “some of the nude or partially-nude photographs appear to be of underage girls.” New York authorities specifically credited the Miami Herald, which has surfaced many other questionable details about the case, with helping lead them to new evidence. On Tuesday another woman came forward with allegations that she had been raped by Epstein as a teenager: Jennifer Araoz told NBC News that she was approached at age 14 in 2001 by a woman who took her to Epstein’s home where she was paid to give him massages in her underwear, and that he raped her when she was 15.
Acosta’s tactic Wednesday consisted of blaming state prosecutors first, and the victims second. His claim is that he’s actually a good guy, because when the state authorities decided to pursue charges that would have failed to result in jail time, his office stepped in to press for a more draconian sanction. “Simply put, the Palm Beach state attorney’s office was willing to let Epstein walk free, no jail time, nothing,” he said. “We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail.” The deal had Epstein plead guilty to two state prostitution charges, resulting in the jail time and sex offender registration, though he also had to pay restitution to the victims.
Acosta’s version of the story has a million problems. Barry Krischer, Palm Beach state attorney at the time, immediately lit into Acosta for trying to “rewrite history” by blaming state authorities. “I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong,” Krischer told the New York Times. “No matter how my office resolved the state charges, the U.S. attorney’s office always had the ability to file its own federal charges. If Mr. Acosta was truly concerned with the state’s case and felt he had to rescue the matter, he would have moved forward with the 53-page indictment that his own office drafted.” Conveniently, each office has shifted the blame onto the other, so nobody bears any responsibility. Regardless, who gets to bring charges in such a case is never the sort of zero-sum turf battle either man is making it out to be—as former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade notes: “He could have allowed the state prosecutor to do whatever he wanted with the state case and still pursued his own separate federal charges. Sometimes prosecutors work cooperatively with state prosecutors to work out a global resolution when it is in their clients’ mutual interest, but it is certainly not required.” In other words, Acosta is pretending when he says he was jammed by state prosecutors.
Among Acosta’s most revealing claims were those about the absence of compelling evidence. It bears repeating that Brown, the Herald reporter, points out that Acosta had at his office’s disposal “36 girls who all told the same story, which is amazing.” The New York Times says there were 40 victims at the time the deal was struck. And as the Times further revealed, in a profile of Julie Brown, “Early in the process, she received a heavily redacted police report that was more than 100 pages long and mentioned more than 100 Jane Does.”
More than 100 Jane Does. As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out, the new claim that Acosta had to agree to the sweetheart deal in order to prevent Epstein getting off for less is simply absurd. “Why did that decision have to be made right then and there?” Blake wrote. “If the evidence wasn’t there yet to be confident in a large-scale federal case, why not investigate further and hopefully uncover what federal prosecutors in New York revealed on Monday?” The new indictment includes ample evidence that had already been collected when the non-prosecution agreement was signed. When asked about this at his press conference, Acosta said other jurisdictions were free to pursue other investigations (and 10 years later New York did! See, the system works!) and that victims were also free to pursue civil remedies. (See, the system works!)
In point of fact, the system did work perfectly. To protect a child predator, that is. What you are witnessing here is Acosta seeking refuge in a country that allows jurisdictions to both point fingers at one another and reverse-engineer their own fact-finding to highlight only the smallest quantum of evidence. As was the case with the federal “investigations” into claims about White House chief of staff Rob Porter’s brutal and persistent battery of his partners, and Brett Kavanaugh’s alleged sexual misconduct toward women, investigations are only as effective as the investigator’s willingness to look. Alex Acosta did not look very hard. Instead, Alex Acosta chose to sign a non-prosecution agreement around what he opted to see, which is what he wanted to see, which was close to nothing.
As important as Acosta’s willingness to blame state prosecutors is his willingness to avert his own eyes. Because the only way to have 100 Jane Doe interviews and a 53-page draft indictment and to still see so very, very little misconduct is to blame the victims themselves. And so, on Wednesday, Alex Acosta went on to do just that, as David Graham observed. In the single most grotesque moment in a wholly grotesque public event, Acosta, when asked what he’d tell Jeffrey Epstein’s victims, said this: “The message is you need to come forward. I heard this morning that another victim came forward and made horrendous, horrendous allegations, allegations that should never happen to any woman, much less a young girl. And as victims come forward, these cases can be brought and they can be brought by the federal government, they can be brought by state attorneys, and they will be brought.”
Acosta, who worked for a president who routinely claims that all sexual assault victims are solely in it for the money, went on to quote prosecutors in his office who described girls too terrified to come forward because they were scared of being shamed and trashed by defense counsel. As he said of a female prosecutor in his office, “She talks about the challenges faced, 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.” He added that the victims worried they would be disparaged for seeking monetary reparations—“and it became clear that they were going to receive money if he was convicted, how that would impeach their credibility”—buying into the Trumpist narrative that any accuser who ever accepts compensation could legitimately have their credibility questioned.
Taken in sum, Acosta seems to be saying that the real impediment to a just resolution is the unreliable and fickle victims, who are afraid the system won’t take them seriously (as he didn’t) and who are afraid of being talked about derisively (in precisely the ways he now does). As Adam Horowitz, a lawyer for seven of the victims, told the New York Times on Wednesday, the young women were indeed scared to testify—because the prosecutors themselves had terrified them. “The prosecutors were saying, ‘These defense lawyers are going to go through your whole personal life, dig up your bad acts and your sex life,’ ” Horowitz said. “When they heard that from prosecutors, sure they were intimidated. They kept saying, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ”
Finally, Acosta posited that he is off the hook because life is significantly better for accusers in 2019. “We live in a very different world. Today’s world treats victims very, very differently. Today’s world does not allow some of the victim shaming that could have taken place at trial 12 years ago,” he urged. Apparently, Acosta has never heard of E. Jean Carroll, Christine Blasey Ford, or Summer Zervos, each of whom has been called a cash-seeking liar by the president of the United States, Acosta’s boss. He also falsely implied that the federal rules of evidence and the Crime Victims’ Rights Act either didn’t exist or didn’t preclude lawyers from “victim shaming” back in 2007, which is not true.
Anyway, to recap: Acosta arrived at the laughable 2008 agreement because he chose to ignore everything that could have been something. He did that by allowing the victims to be terrified and then blaming them for it, by creating an imaginary deadline by which he would have to close his investigation and finalize a deal, and by diffusing responsibility for bringing Epstein to justice among state authorities, civil litigation, other federal jurisdictions, and the victims themselves. Acosta’s entire mission is to push the blame outward, but in doing so, he has instead offered up a case study in institutional cowardice and complicity.
Just because we can blame Acosta does not mean it’s his fault alone. It’s a mistake to leave out the many, many other men who determined that they too had not seen enough evidence to act decisively, which includes Vanity Fair’s Graydon Carter, who believed reporter Vicky Ward had amassed insufficient evidence of Epstein’s sexual depravity to keep it in a reported story in 2003, telling Politico, “In the end, we didn’t have confidence in Ward’s reporting. We were not in the habit of running away from a fight. But she simply didn’t have the goods.” It includes Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who allowed a prosecutor at a 2011 hearing to seek to reduce Epstein’s sex offender status to the lowest possible classification. It includes a system that, as the New York Post reports, ensured Epstein was permitted by the NYPD to skip every one of his court-mandated check-ins. It appears everyone evaluated all the evidence through their money-colored glasses.
And, as in any story about wealth and privilege and access, it also seems to come down to a trio of lawyers—all from Kirkland & Ellis, as Joe Conason notes—Kenneth Starr, Alex Acosta, and Jay Lefkowitz, who worked together to grease the skids for Epstein. As Lefkowitz, representing Epstein, memorialized in a 2007 letter, Acosta would not inform “any of the identified individuals, potential witnesses or potential civil claimants” against Epstein about the terms or existence of the sweetheart deal. That too, says Acosta, was done to protect … the victims.
So please. Just please. Stop saying victims don’t come forward. Stop saying you wish more of them would come forward. If you have not only not made it easier for them to do so, but have used your professional status and authority to make it far harder, you are lying when you say that. This is not just about Alex Acosta, or Bill Clinton, or Alan Dershowitz, or Donald Trump, or any one man. It’s not about Senate Republicans, who were evidently capable of feeling shame three years ago, but are wholly dead to it today. It is about entire hierarchies of wealth and invulnerability that first avoid looking at abused women and then insist it is their own fault they are invisible. As Rebecca Solnit aptly put it yesterday, “These men could not do what they did without a culture—lawyers, journalists, judges, friends—that protected them, valued them, devalued their victims and survivors. They do not act alone, and their might is nothing more or less than the way a system rewards and protects them, which is another definition of rape culture. That is, their impunity is not inherent; it’s something the society grants them and can take away.”
Decreasing that impunity would require making a choice, a rare choice, a choice that nobody seems to be making, to privilege abused women over powerful predators. Even as we swim in this sea of revealed abuse, consider the individual actors who, again and again, fail to make that choice. When you do, you don’t just see the results of their actions, you witness how they defend their inaction. It’s almost an art form now, and Alex Acosta is just the latest example of a man accused of wrongdoing who insists that everyone but himself is wrong. The Herald excoriated Acosta for failing to show “an ounce of sympathy for the vulnerable girls Epstein sexually exploited.” That’s perhaps because Acosta now lives in a world where all that matters is what the president thinks. This is where enablers of sexual predators end up when they enable new sexual predators.
If you can manage nothing else, pay attention only to this: Reports surfaced Wednesday via the Guardian that as labor secretary, Acosta proposed an 80 percent funding cut to a section of his own department known as the International Labor Affairs Bureau. That is the department that combats child sex trafficking. This administration is not just covering up for those who rape children and those who get away with raping children. They are making the rape of children invisible. They are ensuring that we can’t see it and we can’t investigate it, and before you know it, it will be as if it never even happened at all. And America’s child rape problem will have been “solved.”
Update, July 12, 2018: This piece has been updated to reflect Alex Acosta’s Friday resignation as secretary of labor.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus