The Trump administration loves to media-blame — just Thursday, Attorney General William P. Barr accused the media of promoting an idea about the census that the president himself promoted — the Alexander Acosta controversy gives them a perfect opportunity to do just that.
President Trump is trying shift blame from his resigning labor secretary’s past actions to the media coverage of them. He’s actually not that far off: Journalism — one reporter in particular — played a big role in Acosta’s departure.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Acosta wouldn’t be resigning under these circumstances if it weren’t for Miami Herald reporter Julie Brown’s year-long investigation into how he was tied to a previous plea deal for a multimillionaire now accused of sex trafficking.
When Acosta was nominated to be Trump’s labor secretary, Brown knew he prosecuted a Jeffrey Epstein case a decade ago. What she uncovered was how Acosta signed off on a controversial deal that let Epstein plead guilty to lesser state, rather than federal, charges. Brown wrote articles about Acosta’s role, putting new scrutiny on the Epstein case in political and legal circles. When Epstein was charged with federal sex trafficking crimes on Saturday in New York, federal prosecutors nodded to her work, saying they had been “assisted by some excellent investigative journalism.”
In an interview with WNYC on Thursday, Brown said her reporting uncovered that Acosta ended the investigation into Epstein before federal investigators were ready. The FBI wanted to continue to investigate Epstein, a wealthy financier accused of soliciting underage women. But Acosta, then the U.S. attorney in Florida, essentially cut it short, in her words, with the plea deal his office negotiated with Epstein’s lawyers.
Acosta argued in a news conference Wednesday that the plea deal was the best of bad options, that had he not stepped in, it would have gone to trial and Epstein could have walked free.
But Washington Post reporting backs Brown up, revealing court documents that show Acosta’s office was unusually amenable to the demands of Epstein’s defense team at the time, and legal analysts and attorneys were perplexed by Acosta’s decision.
Acosta still hasn’t explained why his office did not tell Epstein’s alleged victims about the plea deal, something a federal judge later ruled broke the law. Under Acosta, Epstein served 13 months in jail. Under federal prosecutors in New York, he now faces up to 45 years.
The point of breaking all this down again is that Acosta, not the media, did the things that have now cost him his job. There was a steady drumbeat of reporting about his actions a decade ago because they deserved reporting.
Acosta casts his resignation as a result of being questioned about Epstein — “It would be selfish for me to stay in the position and continue talking about a case that is 12 years old,” he said Friday, standing next to Trump. But he brought the attention on himself, not the other way around.
That’s what Trump and his team consistently miss, or more likely misrepresent, about headlines. That a Cabinet secretary offering a now accused sex trafficker a get-out-of-jail-soon card, for reasons that can’t clearly be explained, is a big story. Big enough to cost that Cabinet secretary his job.
The same can be said for recent reporting, centered here at The Washington Post, about Scott Pruitt, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and his questionable ties to the industries he sought to regulate. Or Politico’s reporting about how former health and human services secretary Tom Price flew private planes on taxpayer money when he could have taken a regular flight. And on goes the list of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries’ scandals.
Many of these were brought to light by the media. Acosta’s story in particular is closely tied to the media. So, yeah, the media played a role in his departure, but only in the sense that journalists looked at what Acosta did a decade ago and put it in the context of him being a much more powerful public figure now.
“Sometimes a story deserves a new look,” Brown told the New York Times this week. “There were all of these puzzle pieces that were out there, and when you put all of these puzzle pieces together, with the passage of time, there was this really damning story.”
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