Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta negotiated what many consider a sweetheart deal with Jeffrey Epstein over sex-crime charges years ago when Acosta was the United States attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
Acosta held a news conference Wednesday to, presumably, calm calls for his removal now that Epstein has been arrested and charged with sex trafficking by federal prosecutors in New York.
The Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor and Human Trafficking is part of the Department of Labor.
The charges are absolutely disgusting. Epstein is alleged to have preyed on underage girls, some of whom he used as recruiters of other victims.
Donald Trump urged Acosta to publicly explain actions, or inactions, in the Epstein case, according to reports.
It remains to be seen whether Acosta’s news conference performance will save his job. As The New York Times reported, “Acosta’s appearance before cameras was seen as a crucial test of whether he will keep his job, with an audience of one as President Donald Trump watched and weighed a decision.”
But that’s the thing that stops you: For Trump, this isn’t about the charges or the children. For him, this is about how men perform denial. In the mind of the misogynist, a man’s word is the weightiest thing in society, even when he’s lying. One’s test of survival and prosperity isn’t what you say, but how you say it. It isn’t what you do, but how you defend or deny it.
Acosta did exactly what his audience of one would like: waffled, deflected and, notably, refused to apologize to the victims in the case and refused to say that he regretted his actions.
Instead, Acosta said that the case was a hard one and it would have been a gamble to take it to trial, so he cut a deal. But, as CNN’s Kara Scannell pointed out, “Acosta is center stage because of a once-secret 2007 nonprosecution agreement he reached as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida with Epstein, the multimillionaire with connections to the highest levels of U.S. politics and business.”
Something here doesn’t pass the smell test. Acosta is asking us to ignore what we see — a wealthy man with powerful friends got a slap on the wrist where others would have been buried in charges — and simply listen to what he says — that he really wanted to help the young victims.
But the facts of this case, or any other, don’t really matter to Trump. If you’re useful to him, you must follow his lead when you encounter a hurdle: not rise above it, but slither beneath it.
It doesn’t matter if you attack the country Trump is sworn to defend, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin did, if you are “extremely strong and powerful” in your denial.
It doesn’t matter if you are accused of giving the order to hack up a Washington Post columnist’s body with a bone saw, as the Saudi Crown Prince is.
It doesn’t matter if you are accused of sexual impropriety, assault or rape — Brett Kavanaugh, Rob Porter, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes. Just deny, deny, deny. Admit nothing.
If a man strongly, passionately denies something, then he has performed his function, he has risen to — or descended to — the moment. For Trump, indignation is redemptive even when it isn’t righteous.
In 2017 when Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama was accused of child molestation, Trump still defended him, saying Moore “totally denies it.” As Trump told reporters: “He says it didn’t happen. You have to listen to him, also.”
In Trump’s orbit you must ape the behavior of the boss: strongly deny and strenuously deflect. And, if possible, personally attack the person making the accusation. That is the Trump way. That is what he has always done.
According to Bob Woodward last year, Trump talked about a “friend who had acknowledged some bad behavior toward women.” When counseling that friend on how to respond, Trump said, “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women.” Trump continued: “If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead. That was a big mistake you made.”
In Trump’s world, apologies and punishments are for the weak. They are for losers.
Victims have no voice. There is a plane above us average people, a plane on which the lives of the rich and powerful play out, a plane on which the rules are different.
I don’t believe Trump cares at all about the girls Epstein is accused of having abused. I don’t believe he cares at all that the Acosta deal in the case looks shady and may have spared the rich man at the expense of the poor girls.
I believe Trump only cares about his own image and how those around him reflect on him. He wants to project strength at all times. To him, there’s nothing weaker than an apologetic man.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.