Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Acosta Defends Secret Plea Deal for Jeffrey Epstein. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired July 10, 2019 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:00]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED MALES AND FEMALES: Go, USA!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: My heart is so full from this morning. Thank you, girls and boys.

I'm BROOKE BALDWIN.

"THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Secretary Acosta was not able to list any regrets about that Epstein plea deal.

The lead starts right now.

The Trump Cabinet secretary who once brokered a secret plea deal with an alleged child rapist today says, don't blame him, as President Trump pushes him out in front of the microphones to defend himself.

Another major Democratic candidate courting AOC. Is AOC the key to the primary race or just the formula for firing up Republicans?

Plus, now, that is a Brexit. President Trump gets his way. The ambassador who privately called him incompetent and insecure is out, but I guess we're still cool with Kim Jong-un and the Saudi crown prince?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with breaking news. Just minutes ago, in an attempt to keep his job and defend his reputation, Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta tried to defend himself from a rising chorus of calls for his resignation, given that 2008 plea agreement he agreed to, today called the sweetheart deal, for accused child predator, trafficker, and child rapist Jeffrey Epstein. Acosta was urged to hold this press conference by President Trump, two

sources tell CNN. Acosta has faced scathing criticism from Epstein's many victims who were minors at the time of Epstein's alleged brutality. They are offended by what they see as a soft punishment for the wealthy, well-connected Epstein and, as covered in an award- winning "Miami Herald" expose, the -- quote -- "extraordinary plea agreement that would conceal the full extent of Epstein's crimes and the number of people involved."

The deal -- quote -- "essentially shut down an ongoing FBI probe into whether there were more victims and other powerful people who took part in Epstein sex crimes."

Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that Acosta and his office, by failing to notify the victims about the plea agreement ahead of time, broke the law.

But Acosta today was not only unrepentant. He portrayed himself as something of the hero in the Epstein affair, claiming that the state of Florida would have let Epstein go free had he and his team not come in wearing their federal white hats and save the day, ensuring that Epstein at least went to jail for some time and was labeled a registered sex offender.

As CNN's Pamela Brown now reports, Acosta insisted today he did nothing wrong and he refused to commit to meet with any of Epstein's victims.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALEXANDER ACOSTA, U.S. SECRETARY OF LABOR: I absolutely welcome this New York prosecution. It is the absolutely right thing to

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Embattled Labor Secretary Alex Acosta defending himself this afternoon over a controversial plea deal he oversaw that allowed multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein to avoid federal sex crime charges, saying he intervened in the case to give Epstein a stiffer punishment.

ACOSTA: And that's what the prosecutor of my office did. They insist that he go to jail and put the world on notice that he was and is a sexual predator.

P. BROWN: The 2008 case against Epstein alleges he coerced dozens of young girls, some as young as 14, into having sex with him.

ACOSTA: The Palm Beach state attorney's office was ready to let Epstein walk free, no jail time, nothing. Prosecutors in my former office found this to be completely unacceptable, and they became involved.

P. BROWN: But prosecutors inked a deal letting him avoid a public federal trial, register as a sex offender, and serve just 13 months in state prison, where he was allowed to leave during the day.

Acosta now says he was faced with two difficult options as the U.S. attorney.

ACOSTA: Plead guilty to more serious charges, charges that required jail time, registration and restitution, or we roll the dice and bring a federal indictment.

QUESTION: Standing here today, are you basically saying that you feel that you did everything you could, you got the best deal you could get, and you have no regrets?

ACOSTA: We believe that we proceeded appropriately.

P. BROWN: CNN confirms Acosta's statement comes after Trump ordered him to explain himself publicly.

ACOSTA: My relationship with the president's outstanding. He has, I think, very publicly made clear that I have got his support.

P. BROWN: And while the White House is publicly defending Acosta...

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: Why you talking about Alex Acosta, not Jeffrey Epstein?

P. BROWN: ... one of Trump's confidants telling CNN he doesn't believe Acosta will last.

CHRISTOPHER RUDDY, CEO, NEWSMAX: I don't think...

(CROSSTALK)

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: You think he will gone in -- you said six weeks?

RUDDY: Or shorter. I think it'll be in a relatively quick period he will be gone.

P. BROWN: Meantime, Trump is now distancing himself from Epstein, who he once described as "a terrific guy who likes beautiful women as much as I do."

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him. I had a falling out with him a long time ago. I don't think I have spoken to him for 15 years. I wasn't a fan.

[16:05:08]

P. BROWN: Epstein was also a frequent visitor at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort years ago. But an attorney for the Trump Organization tells CNN, Trump banned him from the property, although he doesn't remember when or why.

As for Epstein, who is facing new charges in a New York case, another accuser went public today, describing being raped by him as a teenager.

JENNIFER ARAOZ, EPSTEIN ACCUSER: Forcefully raped me, knew exactly what he was doing, and I don't think cared. What hurts even more so is that, if I wasn't afraid to come forward sooner, then maybe he wouldn't have done it to other girls.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

P. BROWN: Well, the White House has not provided any updates to an internal review of Acosta they claimed was under way in March.

One source tells me the White House is deferring to DOJ officials who are looking into whether there was any professional misconduct by Acosta. Today, the secretary said he would be willing to be interviewed by those investigators, but he remained defiant he did nothing wrong -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Pamela Brown at the White House, thanks so much.

Joining me now are two former federal prosecutors, Elliot Williams and Elie Honig.

Elliot, let me start with you.

What do you make Acosta's characterization and defense of the way his office handled the matter?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER DEPUTY U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, what we saw was Acosta essentially shift the blame to the line prosecutors in his office, the state prosecutors, and even to some extent the victims.

Short of shaming them, he says, look, they still have civil -- they can still file a civil suit against Epstein. What you didn't hear in there anywhere was a manager saying, I messed up, the buck stopped with me as the prosecutor, and all the evidence that was available to New York or to the prosecutors in New York, or at least some of it, would have been available to him at the time.

And so it was shockingly defensive in tone. And it's really amazing to see that there wasn't any sort of -- even -- there was this question of, do you have any regrets? And he sort of punted on the question.

And so it's -- again, as a leader, as a manager, as a principal, you just have to sometimes say, I had discretion, and I used it poorly, and I use it wrong. And he just didn't do it.

TAPPER: Well, Elie, I mean, he might not think that he did anything wrong. Is it possible, is it in the realm of possibility that that was the best deal that the U.S. attorney's office could get in 2008?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's very unlikely that was the best deal -- 13 months for running an organized sex trafficking network of children, for molesting and raping children, 13 months is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what he should have gotten under the federal system.

And this blame-shifting to the state was complete nonsense. It doesn't matter if the state was willing to walk away. That's not the question, did you do a little bit better than state? The question is, what should he have gotten federally?

And I think we're going to see the Southern District get way, way higher than 13 months. And, Jake, just for comparison, 13 months is what someone gets in the federal system for about two grams of crack cocaine. That's about half a teaspoon. That's what 13 months is.

That's not what a sexual predator should get in the federal system by any stretch.

WILLIAMS: Yes, and also on top of that, just piggybacking on Elie's point, there's dozens and dozens of victims. This isn't the kind of sexual assault case where, literally, it's the word of one victim, adult, against another.

You had sympathetic victims and lots and lots and lots of them. And so the idea that they could -- they felt that they could not have won at trial, if that's his argument, or they felt that they just wouldn't have been successful, it just sort of seems foolish based on everything we know that was available and certainly is available to us now.

So this isn't a hindsight question. The evidence was largely there and it's just -- a lot just doesn't fit together here, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Elie, Acosta said that many of the victims were scared and traumatized, refused to testify. He also said that victims are treated differently, he seemed to be suggesting, better today, that there's less victim shaming in the court system.

Is any of that valid? Do you think that he has any case there?

HONIG: I really don't buy that at all, Jake. That part jumped out at me as being way off-base.

First of all, as a prosecutor, it is your job to win the trust and the comfort of the victims, and to walk them through the process so that they're ready to testify. And, second of all, this notion that we were sort of in a different headspace back in 2007, and we weren't ready to trust victims is complete nonsense.

I know it firsthand, because, in 2007, when I was with the Southern District of New York, I did a trial of five defendants where basically the entirety of our evidence was, we called 10 different victims of a sex trafficking ring, similar in many respects to this one.

The jury heard them, the jury credited them, the jury believed them and convicted all the defendants of sex trafficking. So this idea that we weren't ready for this yet back in 2007, I will tell you firsthand, is nonsense.

TAPPER: But, Elliot, let me just say, to play devil's advocate, quite literally, the attorneys, the actual devil's advocates, the advocates for Epstein, were Ken Starr, Jay Lefkowitz, Alan Dershowitz, really expensive high-powered people doing all sorts of things to intimidate everyone involved in the case, I'm not saying illegally, but within the legal system.

[16:10:15]

And they would, I'm sure, on the stand tried to destroy every one of the victims. Is there not a case to be made by somebody like Acosta that, look, these girls were, as we know, incredibly vulnerable, a lot of them a step away from homelessness, according to the "Miami Herald" report, and that it was a mismatch, and that most important was getting him in jail and getting him as a registered sex offender, and that was the decision he made, and maybe it doesn't stand up to scrutiny today, but, at the time, he was trying to do the right thing?

Is that possible?

WILLIAMS: Yes, I mean, look, you got him in jail, but he was able to go to work every day and continue racking up millions and millions of dollars.

And so -- but, again, yes, he's entitled to lodge a defense, and his attorneys, it would have been in their right to attack the credibility of witnesses. That's what works in our system.

But these are 14-year-old girls, and there were potentially dozens and dozens of them. And so at a certain point, yes, his high-powered attorneys would have attacked the credibility of the victims, but they're also very compelling victims.

And it's a very compelling case with a lot of evidence. I mean, what this is exposing, I think, is there's inequalities in our system. Elie pointed out the fact that for a gram, a couple grams of crack rock, you would still get that kind of above 10-year sentence.

And were this many other types of crimes, to some extent, people wouldn't bat their eyes at someone going away for a much, much longer time. But I think the fact that we're even here talking about it shows that -- the way that society is willing to brush aside sex assault cases and the plight of sex assault victims.

So, yes, I think this exposes inequities in our system more than anything else.

TAPPER: All right, Elliot and Elie, thank you so much for your expertise. Really appreciate it.

Joining me now on the phone right now is Julie K. Brown. She is "The Miami Herald" investigative reporter who broke the award-winning Epstein story and has continued to vigorously report on it.

Julie, once again, congratulations on bringing all of this horrific misjustice to light. It is because of you that we are here.

I want to ask you about Alex Acosta's press conference. First of all, is there anything that you heard that he said that you do not think to be true?

JULIE K. BROWN, "THE MIAMI HERALD": Well, there were a number of things.

And he managed to present it in a way that it sounds true, if you really don't read the court records and understand the sequence of events.

I guess there's a lot to unpack. There are two areas, I think, number one, his argument about the evidence and whether there were adequate witnesses, that the witnesses were strong enough to testify. Look, he didn't need all 30. He had 36 girls who all told the same story, which is amazing.

And I talked to only a handful of them. And they all said exactly what the M.O. was.

Sarah (ph) would call me, and we would set it up for 3:00. I went into the kitchen. We went up this curving stairway.

I mean, it isn't just the witnesses and whether they were scared to testify, which, by the way, I heard one of the lawyers mention. It is the job of the prosecutors to make them feel secure enough to testify. And so that's one thing.

And then the second part of this whole thing is the secrecy involved. If this was such a great deal, and this was the best they can do, then why didn't they tell the victims? Why didn't they answer the victims' phone calls? These victims had to hire attorneys specifically to get the prosecutors to answer their phone calls. That doesn't make sense.

He mentioned something about this meeting, which was very suspect, that he had with one -- a private meeting that he had with one of Epstein's defense attorneys.

TAPPER: The breakfast meeting at Marriott with Jay Lefkowitz, yes.

(CROSSTALK)

J. BROWN: Right.

And he tried to paint that in a way that isn't really accurate.

Yes, he's correct. There was a deal that was signed in September. But there were other aspects of that deal that were -- he mentioned an addendum. That's key. There was an addendum that was still being negotiated.

And also the part about not informing the victims wasn't written into that agreement. That was what they discussed at that meeting, because Mr. Lefkowitz wrote a letter to Mr. Acosta after the meeting saying, thank you for the meeting. I'm glad we had this discussion. And here's what we agreed to.

And if you read that, one of the things that they agreed to was that they weren't going to tell the victims.

So he's sort of dancing around it by saying, well, we had a piece of paper signed in September. [16:15:02] The reality is that there were a lot of things that

Epstein's lawyers were still fighting for. They really wanted this to go back to the state which is exactly what happened. They got what they wanted. And Mr. Acosta relented and did give it back to the state.

TAPPER: So a lot of things he said that don't pass scrutiny, as something who spent so much time studying the court records. The case was much stronger that he's making it appear and so on.

Let me ask you, he did put a lot of blame, Acosta today, at the Palm Beach County attorney's office, the state attorney's office there saying if it hadn't been for the U.S. attorney, he would have -- Epstein would have gone free. Is that accurate?

BROWN: Well, it is accurate. Barry Krischer was ready to let him off and that was one of the consternations of the two -- the police detective Joe Kerry and the police chief were just flabbergasted that they were -- he was going to let them off. He also -- the grand jury that happened, I think they only called one witness. They didn't even give the grand jury the evidence the Palm Beach police had collected. So that part of it is true.

But does that mean you still can't prosecute him federally when you know that it is -- this is a sex operation involving recruiters and schedulers and pirates and drivers and money men who paid the girls. I mean, that is a federal -- that is a federal sex trafficking crime. It's an organization.

So to put it back in and say, well, the state prosecutor didn't do his job, we were the heroes now because we took the case over and then give it back to the state prosecutors, I mean, it just doesn't make my sense.

TAPPER: Yes. Let me ask you, also, Julie, Acosta was asked about the decision not to tell the victims about the plea deal ahead of time which is against the law as found by a federal judge earlier this year. I want you to listen to part of his explanation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALEXANDER ACOSTA, LABOR SECRETARY: The concern and these are the words of the career prosecutor, that, quote, she did not want to share with the victims that the office was attempting to secure for them the ability to obtain monetary compensation because she is aware if she disclosed that, and the negotiations fell through, Epstein's counsel would use this to question the victims' credibility.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What was your response when you heard him say that?

BROWN: Well, there is two problems with that argument. First of all, before the deal was at the point where Epstein appeared in court and actually was sentenced, she didn't have to tell them that there was an -- that the restitution provision, which by the way I've also been told was extremely unusual because they basically said that an attorney would be hired and paid for by Epstein to handle these restitution cases which is a conflict.

I mean, you're having the perpetrator pay the legal fees for the lawyer who is supposed to get the women money. And that whole thing is another whole problem. But nevertheless, they didn't have to tell them early on that -- about the restitution provision, they could have still said we have a plea agreement and we're working on this plea agreement, number one.

And number two, when they got to the sentencing part of it, then what is their excuse? They're not going to trial. What is their excuse then for not telling them about the whole plea deal? You could tell them at the point where you know you're not going to trial. And they didn't do that either.

TAPPER: All right. Julie K. Brown of the "Miami Herald," congratulations again on the justice that you are bringing to the world because of your investigative series. It is really remarkable and I just want to thank you.

BROWN: Thanks for having me, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Coming up, much more on our breaking news, coming up. What Secretary Acosta said when our Kaitlan Collins asked if he would make the same deal today.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:23:07] TAPPER: We're back with breaking news.

Labor Secretary Alex Acosta fiercely, unrepentantly defending his role today in securing a plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein in 2008. Acosta insisting that the deal he cut as U.S. attorney was a more certain outcome than taking the case to trial, but he stopped short of saying that he would make the same decision again today.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins asked Acosta about that this afternoon.

Kaitlan, what else did Acosta have to say?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake that was one of the main questions reporters had for the labor secretary. Does he regret the way he handled that? That was a defense the president used in the Oval Office saying sometimes attorneys or judges don't like the way they handled something, but today, Alex Acosta refused to answer directly repeated questions about whether or not he would have changed his course.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: These questions are always very difficult. Because 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 victims shaming that could have taken place at trial 12 years ago. Today's world understands that when interviewing victims, when eliciting testimony, that testimony could be sometimes contradictory, that memories are difficult.

And so, I don't think we can say, you know, take a case that is this old and fully know how it would play out today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Now, he says this old. We should note, it was only made 11 years ago.

And though he said today's world treats victims differently, Jake, we should also note that under his watch, around the same time this plea agreement was negotiated, there were several other sex trafficking cases brought that resulted in much tougher sentences, even though none of those had dozens of victims like this one did.

[16:25:06] TAPPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins, outside of the Justice Department, thank you.

So much to -- let's talk about this right now.

First of all, Barbara Comstock, let me ask you a question. When you hear Acosta say that today's world is very different than the world of 2007 and 2008 when it comes to victims, you've worked on anti- trafficking legislation, you worked at the Justice Division under Bush. You know Acosta.

Is that true? Is there more of an understanding of victims and different -- I mean, whatever issues he's talking about?

BARBARA COMSTOCK (R), FORMER U.S. CONGRESSWOMAN: Well, over the past ten years when I was in the state house and in Congress, we passed lots of anti-human trafficking legislation to improve the situation. I've talked to dozens of victims and that is why I would ask and even beg that we focus on the women here first and foremost and getting them justice and kudos to the reporting on this and this is now being prosecuted again.

Epstein, there is all kinds of things you could go at him on. Financial things, how did he make his money? You know when someone is engaged in activities like this, there is a money trail that's probably criminal. That needs to be looked at. I would hope someone could freeze his assets right now so all of these young girls who are victimized by him, who should not be blaming themselves -- that broke my heart to see that girl blaming herself for not coming forward.

TAPPER: Yes.

COMSTOCK: That is something that these predators, you know, do to them. That is the secondary victimization.

So, none of these young girls should blame themselves. They need justice. I would like to see Epstein financially bankrupted, and then we need

to do DOJ congressional investigations of how this case was handled on the state and federal level.

TAPPER: Yes.

COMSTOCK: I think there needs to be a lot -- there was a beginning of discussion today and a lot more that goes into it.

But first and foremost, let's focus on the young girls and getting them justice. I'm confident there is a lot more victims out there and there is a lot more people who knew about things and procured these girls and who also should be brought to justice.

TAPPER: And so, Abby, from your perch at the White House you've covered the president as he has faced allegations, not from minors, but from women and I can't say that they were treated with tremendous respect by the world.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And the idea that there is no victim blaming in 2019 is completely preposterous for anyone paying attention.

So, it is puzzling, I mean, Kaitlan's point is important, there were other cases at that time that were prosecuted so I think it is hard to believe that somehow the world is so dramatically different. Yes, we're talking about it more. Maybe we're paying attention to it more.

But victims face the same challenges that -- today as they did then and this administration actually frankly has kind of a problem with this. This is a president who, when he's asked about women accusing him of sexual assault, says, they're not my type. And that is where they start on this issue. And it makes it harder for them to have credibility on it.

And in a case like this and I think Alex Acosta was reaching for an excuse or some explanation for what happened. It seems that what is really going on here is that Jeffrey Epstein is an extraordinarily wealthy, powerful politically-connected person. That is why he believed it was going to be a gamble, a roll of the dice to take this to a court as opposed to settling it.

TAPPER: And, Ryan, Acosta was urged to do this press conference by President Trump. Obviously he's trying to save his job. Who knows if it worked or not? How do you think he did?

RYAN LIZZA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think the consensus was it wasn't so great. The fact he couldn't answer Kaitlan's very important question, would you do this deal today and which means he can't defend the deal and if you can't say you would do it again, you can't defend it.

I mean, politically, there is a question about whether he will resign after this or not, or the White House will push him out, it doesn't seem like it is in anyone's interest to have him sticking around, right? It doesn't seem like the White House has much of an interest in this story festering for them, especially given the credible accusations against President Trump.

A lot of -- most Democrats are now on the side of calling for his resignation. He's had connections to Democrats, which is going to be a political issue going forward. There are eight Democrats that voted to confirm him when a lot of the facts were known.

And I don't -- what is in the interest for Acosta to stick around and sort of take this level of criticism. So I would be surprised if he's the labor secretary -- there are people who could do that job.

TAPPER: If you were advising President Trump, what would you tell him to do?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Cut him loose.

TAPPER: Yes.

BEGALA: Now, sir. Now.

The Labor -- the press conference, Labor Department, one of the many massive duties is to crack down on human trafficking, enforcing some of these laws that Barbara was talking about. Part of that enforcement is a fund that Congress set up to give grants to foreign countries where sex trafficking victims are coming from and where they are essentially enslaved. This makes me proud as an American.

Mr. Acosta, Secretary Acosta, the Trump administration called to cut that fund by 80 percent. He was asked about it at the press conference. He says, well, that's just Washington. Congress put the money back in. It's no big deal.

[16:30:00]