- Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced his resignation amid criticism over a controversial plea deal he brokered in 2008 that significantly reduced the sentence of financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was accused of committing sex crimes.
- The move was announced in a joint press conference Friday, with President Donald Trump applauding Acosta as “a fantastic secretary of labor.”
- The renewed criticism for Acosta came after federal prosecutors in New York filed charges against Epstein on June 6, and accused him of abusing dozens of underage girls.
- Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella will take over as acting secretary, though human rights groups have expressed concern over his previous efforts to lobby against worker protections in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Acosta Steps Down
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned Friday after renewed criticism of a 2008 plea deal he struck in a high profile sex crimes case against prominent financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Acosta, who was the U.S. Attorney for Miami at the time of the Epstein case, came under fire this week after federal prosecutors in New York charged Epstein with sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy for his alleged abuse of dozens of underage girls.
Epstein had previously been charged in a parallel case in Miami and was facing a life sentence.
However, Acosta, in his capacity as the lead prosecutor, negotiated a secret last-minute plea deal with Epstein’s lawyers that allowed him to plead guilty to lesser offenses and receive a sentence of 13 months in jail.
The new charges against Epstein reignited backlash over Acosta’s handling of the previous case, prompting calls for Acosta to step down.
“As I look forward, I do not think it is right and fair for this administration’s labor department to have Epstein as the focus rather than the incredibly economy we have today,” Acosta said speaking alongside President Donald Trump in front of the White House Friday morning.
“I called the president this morning, I told him the right thing was to step aside,” he continued. “Cabinet positions are temporary trusts. It would be selfish to stay in this position and continue talking about a case that’s 12 years old, rather than the amazing economy we have right now.”
Trump for his part applauded Acosta’s work as labor secretary.
“He’s done a fantastic job. He’s a friend of everybody in the administration,” Trump said. “He made a deal that people were happy with, and then 12 years later they’re not happy with it. You’ll have to figure all of that out. But the fact is, he has been a fantastic secretary of labor.”
Acosta’s resignation comes after he held a nearly hour-long news conference on Wednesday, where he defended his decision to reach the plea deal and argued it was the best his office could do under the circumstances.
Acosta argued that Epstein that would not have faced jail-time under charges that state authorities were going bring, but the prosecutor’s office intervened and pressed for a tougher sentence.
“We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” he said. “He needed to go to jail.”
When asked by reporters if he would make the same deal today, Acosta answered, “We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and 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.”
Reporters asked Acosta multiple times if he would apologize to the victims, Acosta refused.
Reporters also pressed Acosta about a February decision by a federal judge who said the plea deal Acosta made violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act because he did not inform Epstein’s victims that he had made the agreement until after it was approved by a judge.
Acosta again defended that decision, arguing that his office did not inform the victims because he was not sure if Epstein would accept the agreement, which included a clause that would allow the victims to seek restitution.
Acosta said that if Epstein had gone to trial rather than taking the deal, his defense lawyers could have undermined victim testimonies by arguing that they were only doing it for the money.
Barry Krischer, who served as Palm Beach state attorney at the time of the Epstein case, rebuked Acosta’s conference Wednesday and accused him of trying to “rewrite history” by putting the blame on state authorities.
“I can emphatically state that Mr. Acosta’s recollection of this matter is completely wrong,” Krischer said, “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,” he continued.
Congressional leaders have called for further investigation into Acosta’s role in the plea deal. Before Acosta announced his resignation, House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings requested that he testify before the committee about the agreement.
Cummings, along with other House Democrats, also sent a letter to the Justice Department to request a briefing about their internal investigations.
“There are significant concerns with Secretary Acosta’s actions in approving an extremely favorable deal for an alleged sexual predator while concealing the deal from the victims of Mr. Epstein’s crimes, which a judge found violated the Crime Victims’ Rights Act,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
It is unclear if they will move forward with the hearing.
Controversy Around Deputy Labor Secretary
Acosta will step officially step down in seven days, and Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella will take over as acting secretary.
….Alex was a great Secretary of Labor and his service is truly appreciated. He will be replaced on an acting basis by Pat Pizzella, the current Deputy Secretary.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 12, 2019
However, Pizzella’s ascension is already provoking controversy. Civil rights groups have expressed concern about his work with Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff in the late 1990s and early 2000s to lobby against protections for workers in the Northern Mariana Islands.
In 2017, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights wrote a letter to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, urging senators to oppose Pizzella’s nomination as deputy secretary of labor over the matter.
“Mr. Pizzella worked closely with Jack Abramoff to lobby for policies on the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands that essentially allowed for unchecked slave labor to be performed with the imprimatur of the ‘Made in the U.S.A.’ label on goods and clothing,” the letter said.
In 2006, Abramoff was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud-related charges.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Associated Press)
Highlights and Key Takeaways from the State of the Union
The president’s scaled-down agenda and heckling from Republicans throughout the night underscored the high level of polarization in the newly divided Congress.
A Big Night for Biden
President Joe Biden gave the annual State of the Union Tuesday, delivering the high-stakes address before a House now controlled by Republicans.
There was a lot riding on Biden’s shoulders: the speech has largely been seen as a soft launch for his 2024 presidential campaign at a time when his approval rating has remained quite low, hanging around just 42%.
That is a bump from the mid-30s he was hovering at last summer, but it still places him among some of the lowest average second-year approval ratings of any president in modern history.
To that point, this year’s State of the Union also put a lot of pressure on Biden to really perform at the top of his game and show the American people he still has what it takes to lead them — even as polls show that a majority of Democrats want a president from a new generation.
Biden is already the oldest president ever at 80, and a re-election bid means he’s asking voters to trust him with the country until he is 86. Republicans have repeatedly seized on his past stumbles to argue he is unfit for office. But, for the most part, Biden has been applauded for delivering exactly the address he needed to.
Championing Enacted Policies
The president’s address was fairly run-of-the-mill for a second-year president.
Touting his administration’s biggest accomplishments over the last few years, Biden put particular focus on the modest but steady economic gains and recoveries in key sectors. He emphasized economic initiatives like the Inflation Reduction Act and the historic infrastructure bill, taking a jab at Republicans who did not back the bipartisan bill to rebuild roads and bridges.
“I want to thank my Republican friends who voted for the law. And my Republican friends who voted against it as well,” he said. “But I’m still — I still get asked to fund the projects in those districts as well, but don’t worry. I promised I’d be a president for all Americans. We’ll fund these projects. And I’ll see you at the groundbreaking.”
Biden also took credit for a range of social policies, like lowering prescription drug prices, lowering costs for childcare and housing, and investing in climate programs. However, he also made it clear that there is still a long way to go, calling on Republicans and their new House Majority to work with him to “finish the job” — a phrase that he reportedly said 12 different times during the speech.
Push for Bipartisanship
In that vein, Biden presented an agenda that was very toned down from the ambitious, progressive plans he had outlined before a Democratic-controlled Congress.
He did not push for many new policies, and when he did, they were very middle of the road — like ending “junk fees” in travel, entertainment, and credit cards. The president also reiterated calls for a number of initiatives that have been non-starters for Republicans, like codifying abortion rights, renewing the assault weapons ban, and imposing new taxes on billionaires.
For the most part, Biden largely focused on a push for bipartisanship.
“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well,” he said.
Biden went on to outline a unity agenda of issues he believes he can get GOP backing on, like support for veterans, fighting the opioid epidemic, and increasing access to mental health benefits.
Republicans Heckle Biden
Achieving unity and bipartisanship is easier said than done — especially given the extreme levels of polarization and division in the federal government. That was very much on display Tuesday night.
In an unusual show of partisan tensions, Republicans — mainly on the far-right — repeatedly heckled the president in what The Hill described as “some of the rowdiest pushback from an opposing party in recent memory.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.) had told reporters that Republicans would act in line with the congressional “code of ethics” and that they would not play “childish games.” It was also reported that the Speaker explicitly warned his party to behave because there would be hot mics and cameras everywhere.
But McCarthy’s members ignored him. One of the most notable moments came when Biden talked about Republicans’ refusal to raise the debt ceiling and accused them of holding the economy hostage until Democrats agreed to their demands.
“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans, some Republicans, want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I’m not saying it’s the majority,” Biden said, to boos from the GOP. “Let me give you — anybody who doubts it, contact my office. I’ll give you a copy — I’ll give you a copy of the proposal.”
The remark was met with much uproar. One member shouted an expletive, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) yelled “Liar!” as Biden continued to speak.
“I’m glad to see — no, I tell you, I enjoy conversion,” Biden quipped in response. “Folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right? They’re not to be — all right. We’ve got unanimity.”
The comments have widely been described as Biden baiting Republicans — who fell into his trap. While it is true that a couple of Republicans floated tying Social Security and Medicaid cuts to the debt ceiling negotiations, that has largely been rejected — including by McCarthy, who said it is off the table.
That, however, was not the only moment where Republicans acted out. When Biden was speaking about the opioid epidemic, he cited the fact that over 70,000 Americans are killed by fentanyl each year, prompting one Republican to yell: “It’s your fault!”
There was further jeering and mocking laughter at various points of the night. In fact, the event got so rowdy that McCarthy was seen shushing his members multiple times from his perch behind Biden.
Biden, for his part, did repeatedly jab at Republicans on a number of issues. He condemned them for not backing certain proposals, criticized GOP policies, and called out efforts to ban abortion and repeal the Inflation Reduction Act — saying firmly that he will veto those attempts.
Small Steps for Bipartisanship, Lack of Foreign Policy
Despite the heated reproaches, the State of the Union did yield some solid moments of unity.
For example, Biden garnered bipartisan applause at one point while speaking about the need for police reform. He also received standing applause from Republicans when he slammed Russia’s war with Ukraine, as well as when he talked about building more semiconductor production in America.
On the topic of foreign policy, many experts noted that Biden spent relatively little time talking about Russia and China, despite the fact that he devotes much of his work and time to dealing with foreign adversaries.
The president, however, allocated only a small amount of his speech to talking about the war with Russia as well as ongoing standoffs with China.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (NPR)
Republican Congressman Proposes Bill to Ban Anyone Under 16 From Social Media
The proposal comes amid a growing push for social media companies to be stringently regulated for child and adolescent use.
The Social Media Child Protection Act
Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Ut.) introduced legislation Thursday that would ban all Americans under the age of 16 from accessing social media.
The proposal, dubbed the Social Media Child Protection Act, would require social media companies to verify users’ ages and give parents and states the ability to bring legal actions against those platforms if they fail, according to a press release.
The legislation would also mandate that social media platforms implement “reasonable procedures to protect the confidentiality, security, and integrity of personal information collected from users and perspective users.”
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would be given the authority to enforce these regulations and implement fines for violations.
Stewart has argued that the move is necessary to protect children from the negative mental health impacts of social media.
“There has never been a generation this depressed, anxious, and suicidal – it’s our responsibility to protect them from the root cause: social media,” he said in a statement announcing the bill.
“We have countless protections for our children in the physical world – we require car seats and seat belts; we have fences around pools; we have a minimum drinking age of 21; and we have a minimum driving age of 16,” the Congressman continued.
“The damage to Generation Z from social media is undeniable – so why are there no protections in the digital world?”
While Stewart’s arguments are nothing new in the ongoing battle around children and regulating social media, his legislation has been described as one of the most severe proposals on this front.
The plan would represent a huge shift in verification systems that critics have long said fall short. Many social media sites like TikTok and Twitter technically ban users under 13 from joining, but there is no formal verification process or mechanisms for enforcement. Companies often just ask users to provide their birthdays, so those under 13 could easily just lie.
Backlash and Support
Stewart — who spent the weeks before the rollout of his bill discussing the matter with the media — has already gotten pushback from many who say the idea is too extreme and a bad approach.
Carl Szabo, the vice president and general counsel of the social media trade group NetChoice, told The Washington Post that such a decision should be left to parents.
“Rather than doomsaying or trying to get between parents and their families, the government should provide tools and education on how best to use this new technology, not demonize it,” he said.
Others have also argued that the move could cut off access to powerful and positive online resources for kids.
“For many kids, especially LGBTQ young people who may have unsupportive parents or live in a conservative area, the internet and social media are a lifeline,” Evan Greer, the director of the advocacy group Fight for the Future, told The Post. “We need better solutions than just cutting kids off from online community and educational resources.”
Lawmakers have also echoed that point, including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Ca.), who represents Silicon Valley. However, there also seems to be support for this measure. At least one Democratic Congressmember has told reporters they are open to the idea, and Stewart says he thinks the proposal will have broad bipartisan backing.
“This is bipartisan… There’s Democratic leaders who are actually maneuvering to be the lead co-sponsor on this,” he told KSL News Radio, adding that President Joe Biden recently wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal that referenced similar ideas.
A Growing Movement
Stewart is just one among the growing number of lawmakers and federal officials who have voiced support for keeping kids and younger teens off social media altogether.
In an interview with CNN Sunday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy expressed concern regarding “the right age for a child to start using social media.”
“I worry that right now, if you look at the guidelines from the platforms, that age 13 is when kids are technically allowed to use social media,” he said. “But there are two concerns I have about that. One is: I, personally, based on the data I’ve seen, believe that 13 is too early.”
Murthy went on to say that adolescents at that age are developing their identity and sense of self, arguing that social media can be a “skewed and often distorted environment,” adding that he is also worried about the fact that the rules around age are “inconsistently implemented.”
His comments gained widespread backing. At least one Senator posted a tweet agreeing, and an FTC Commissioner also shared the remarks on the platform. Stewart, for his part, explicitly cited Murthy’s remarks in the press release announcing his bill.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (KSL News Radio) (CNN)
Feds Investigate Classified Files Found in Biden’s Former Office
The documents reportedly include U.S. intelligence memos and briefing materials that covered topics such as Ukraine, Iran, and the United Kingdom
What Was in the Files?
President Biden’s legal team discovered about 10 classified files in his former office at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington D.C., the White House revealed Monday.
The Department of Justice has concluded an initial inquiry into the matter and will determine whether to open a criminal investigation.
According to a source familiar with the matter who spoke to CNN, they include U.S. intelligence memos and briefing materials that covered topics such as Ukraine, Iran, and the United Kingdom.
A source also told CBS News the batch did not contain nuclear secrets and had been contained in a folder in a box with other unclassified papers.
The documents are reportedly from Biden’s time as vice president, but it remains unclear what level of classification they are and how they ended up in his office.
Biden kept an office in the. Penn Biden Center, a think tank about a mile from the White House, between 2017 and 2020, when he was elected president.
On Nov. 2, his lawyers claim, they discovered the documents as they were clearing out the space to vacate it.
They immediately notified the National Archives, which retrieved the files the next morning, according to the White House.
What Happens Next?
Attorney General Merrick Garland must decide whether to open a criminal investigation into Biden’s alleged mishandling of the documents. To that end, he appointed John Lausch Jr., the U.S. attorney in Chicago and a Trump appointee, to conduct an initial inquiry.
Garland reportedly picked him for the role despite him being in a different jurisdiction to avoid appearing partial.
Lausch has reportedly finished the initial part of his inquiry and provided a preliminary report to Garland.
If a criminal investigation is opened, Garland will likely appoint an independent special counsel to lead it.
The case mirrors a similar DoJ special counsel investigation into former President Donald Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified materials and obstruction of efforts to properly retrieve them.
On Nov. 18, Garland appointed Jack Smith to investigate over 300 classified documents found at Trump’s Florida residence, Mar-a-Lago.
Trump resisted multiple National Archives requests for the documents for months leading up to the FBI’s raid on his property, then handed over 15 boxes of files only for even more to be found still at Mar-a-Lago.
“When is the FBI going to raid the many houses of Joe Biden, perhaps even the White House?” Trump wrote on Truth Social Monday. “These documents were definitely not declassified.”
Rep. James Comer (R-KY), the new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told reporters he will investigate the Biden files.
Republicans have been quick to pounce on the news and compare it to Trump’s classified files, but Democrats have pointed out differences in the small number of documents and Biden’s willingness to cooperate with the National Archives.
The White House has yet to explain why, if the files were first discovered six days before the midterm elections, the White House waited two months to reveal the news to the public.