WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump said Tuesday he would be looking "very closely" at Labor Secretary Alex Acosta's handling of a sex trafficking case involving now-jailed billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein. But he also seemed to stand by his Cabinet official, praising Acosta's performance on the job and saying he felt "very badly" for him.
As for Epstein, Trump -- who had once praised the financier as "a terrific guy" -- distanced himself from the hedge-fund manager now charged with abusing minors, saying the two had had a falling-out 15 or so years ago. "I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you," Trump said.
His comments came as a parade of Democratic presidential contenders and party leaders demanded that Acosta, a former federal prosecutor in south Florida, resign or be fired over his role in a secret 2008 plea deal that let Epstein avoid federal prosecution after allegations he molested teenage girls.
Epstein pleaded not guilty on Monday to new child sex-trafficking charges . Federal prosecutors in New York accuse him of abusing dozens of underage girls in the early 2000s, paying them hundreds of dollars in cash for massages and then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York. He could face up to 45 years in prison if convicted.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Trump repeatedly praised Acosta, calling him a "really great secretary of labor" and "very good" at his job. He suggested it's not unusual to find past mistakes if you look hard enough.
"You know, if you go back and look at everybody else's decisions, whether it's a U.S. attorney, or an assistant U.S. attorney or a judge, if you go back 12 or 15 years ago or 20 years ago and look at their past decisions, I would think you would probably find that they would wish they'd maybe did it a different way," said Trump.
In sympathetic words that seemed to echo his statements of support for then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who had been accused of sexual misconduct as a young man, Trump also said he felt "very badly" for Acosta "because I've known him as being somebody that works so hard and has done such a good job."
Still, he said his administration would be going back to look "very closely" at the circumstances of the deal that allowed Epstein to avoid prosecution on federal charges, plead guilty to lesser state charges and serve 13 months in jail, during which he was allowed to leave to go to his office during the day.
Former Trump Press Secretary Sarah Sanders had said in February that the White House was looking into Acosta's role in the settlement. The White House has not responded to repeated questions about whether there ever was such an investigation, and, if there was, what it found.
Acosta himself weighed in Tuesday on Twitter, ignoring the calls for his resignation and crediting the charges brought against Epstein in New York to new evidence that "offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice."
"The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence," he tweeted.