AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta resigned today. His resignation comes just days after his role in the more-than-decade-old plea deal of multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein was spelled out. Epstein was accused of sex crimes but received a light sentence after pleading guilty to lesser charges.
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ALEX ACOSTA: I do not think it is right and fair for this administration's Labor Department to have Epstein as the focus rather than the incredible economy that we have today. And so I called the president this morning; I told him that I thought the right thing was to step aside.
CORNISH: That's Acosta at the White House, standing next to President Trump, who said this.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: But I just want to let you know - this was him, not me. Because I'm with him.
CORNISH: So what was Acosta like as secretary of labor? To learn more about Acosta's tenure, we have Ben Penn. He's senior reporter, covering labor and employment for Bloomberg Law. And welcome to the studio.
BEN PENN: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: So to begin, this is a labor secretary who didn't have a business background, didn't have a labor background. So what made him unique to this position?
PENN: He came from a legal background. He was the dean of Florida International University Law School for about the previous eight years before he became labor secretary. He had been a U.S. attorney based out of South Florida - obviously, because of the Epstein case. So...
CORNISH: It seemed like he would have been on a judicial track.
PENN: Yes. So there was wide speculation, in part due to the fact that he is good friends with the Federalist Society's Leonard Leo, that his ultimate dream was to become a federal judge, and that is no longer a reality for him now that he is embroiled in the Epstein scandal. But it was definitely something that played a role in how he ruled the Department of Labor in a more legally-minded, deliberate, cautious manner.
CORNISH: How did his role change over time?
PENN: So in his first year and a half as labor secretary, he faced criticism from the business community and some of the more conservative forces in the White House for stalling deregulatory actions that businesses would have favored, such as a rule that would have been a more moderate approach than the Obama administration to determining who is eligible for overtime. And what we saw then, starting in 2019, once Mick Mulvaney became acting chief of staff, was Acosta really had some of his power taken away from him.
I reported earlier this year that Mulvaney instituted a formalized system where, whenever White House assistants and DOL agency heads below Acosta reached an impasse on a deregulatory matter, it would get automatically elevated up to Mulvaney for a final decision. And frequently, Acosta was getting overruled to the point that the Labor Department stopped exercising this system altogether because they knew that Mulvaney was going to have final say.
CORNISH: To that end, what kind of criticism did he get from, say, labor activists? How was he viewed?
PENN: Interestingly, labor activists did not really come out full throttle against Alex Acosta, and really, that's because they feel that Acosta gave them a fair shot. He was not a type of Cabinet member who sought to destroy the agency from the inside out, like other Trump Cabinet members have been criticized for. The perception was, among labor activists, that this was about as good of a labor secretary that they could ask for.
CORNISH: Who might take his place? What would the White House be looking for?
PENN: So right now, Acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella - or at least he'll become acting labor secretary effective one week from today. Pizzella is well-liked by some members of the White House, I'm told, so it wouldn't surprise me at all if he already has an inside track on the nomination, if there were to be one.
CORNISH: That's Ben Penn, senior reporter with Bloomberg Law. Thanks for your reporting.
PENN: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.