STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump's labor secretary, Alex Acosta, has become the latest person to depart the Trump administration. Acosta faced criticism over his past, his handling of a 2008 plea deal with financier Jeffrey Epstein when Acosta was a federal prosecutor. Epstein was accused of sexual abuse and trafficking of minors. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge but served only 13 months in prison, could leave during the day. Acosta had defended that outcome and his part of it. But this morning, he stood by the president outside the White House as President Trump announced his resignation.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I just want to let you know, this was him, not me because I'm with him. He was a - he's a tremendous talent. He's a Hispanic man. He went to Harvard - a great student. And in so many ways, I just hate what he's saying now because we're going to miss him.
INSKEEP: President Trump a short time ago. Let's bring in now Mike Murphy. He's a Republican strategist who has advised presidential candidates including Jeb Bush and John McCain and many others. Mr. Murphy, welcome back to MORNING EDITION.
MIKE MURPHY: Hey Steve. Good to be here.
INSKEEP: What do you make of this announcement today?
MURPHY: Well, it was inevitable, I think. He - you know, the president is a big believer in the theory of, when in doubt, change the channel. And this was linking him to the Epstein affair, which the country's horrified by. So the fact that there was this connection to Acosta in his prosecutorial days, it was a very Trumpian move to pull the lever and open the trap door. I mean, he's just not a guy who's going to be on the cover of Political Loyalty Magazine - not the president's style.
INSKEEP: He has not been necessarily loyal to some people. And yet, the president also has picked surprising moments to dig in and decide that a fight was to his advantage, no matter how disadvantageous it might have seemed to others for him. Why do you think this one just had nothing in it for President Trump?
MURPHY: Well, I think that's the key calculation, you know, what's in it for President Trump? And that's how most politicians think in time of a crisis. And there was no upside here at all. The quicker that he could sever ties and no longer have to debate any connection to the Epstein thing, the better for the president.
But it's also kind of ironic that Acosta was pretty unpopular with the White House staff, who saw him as not being enough of a yes man for the administration, which is often how Cabinet secretaries get in trouble with the home base there. So it - I think it was pretty inevitable. I thought it would be pretty quick. And when in doubt, Trump will work in his own interests to get the topic back to something he thinks helps him.
INSKEEP: I think that you're putting your finger on one of the ironies here. There were many Democrats demanding Acosta's resignation. But I think that the description of Acosta's tenure as labor secretary was not just that he wasn't a yes man to the president, but that he was maybe a little more liberal than some in the White House might have liked. He was heading...
INSKEEP: ...This agency that is associated with Democrats and Democratic policies.
MURPHY: Yeah. I think he had real estate that's problematical. And, again, he wasn't a complete Trump yes guy. You know, the whole thing is full of ironies. The politics of it are simple - Epstein bad, bad plea deal, you know, sever the connection. But if you actually look at the plea deal, he didn't have a lot of grand jury support. And it's in some ways more a demonstration of the problem in the overall system when a prosecutor faces a defendant with incredible financial resources that can just lawyer the hell out of the department. So I'm not sure other prosecutors might not have made the same mistakes that Acosta did. But in the political hurricane we're in right now, all that's irrelevant...
INSKEEP: Yeah. And...
MURPHY: ...And it's time to change the channel and there you go.
INSKEEP: And of course the indictment of so - involving so many women who were victims does raise the question - girls, actually, who were victims - it raises the question of...
INSKEEP: ...Whether Acosta's office had looked so hard to see how many other victims there were. Now, this is one of two big announcements the president has made, the other involves the 2020 census. And also there, the president appeared to back down, although we're about to hear him saying that he's not backing down. Let's listen.
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TRUMP: Today I'm here to say we are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population.
INSKEEP: Although, he did give up putting a question about citizenship on the census, saying that he was going to use other means and existing government databases and information to try to figure out how many citizens there were in the United States. Is this, in fact, a retreat?
MURPHY: Well, that's a great question because, from Trump's point of view, where all politics are about making the topic of the daily debate something he believes resonates with his voters, it's not a defeat because whether or not he wins or loses the technical battle in Washington, by making this a debate, Trump is on the side of using the census or the government to look for people who are here illegally versus not - he thinks he's winning.
So it's one of these things where he thinks he's winning the issue regardless of the details of, is he winning the government's fight over authority? So I think he's probably - the more, you know, this is debated, the happier Trump is - from his point of view of what to talk about in the campaign.
INSKEEP: Were you surprised that the president was so frank in saying I want this information because I want to change the congressional map, I want to redistrict? And he didn't say this part but other analysts have said, even some Republicans have said, changing the map in the way that he wants, using citizenship figures, would massively benefit his party.
MURPHY: Yeah. I was surprised. It was a bit naked, even for him. But, you know, the truth is the census, for a long time, has been used as kind of the the ball bouncing back and forth in the great American game of redistricting. I used to live in a district in California that was only contiguous of low tide.
MURPHY: It's a bad thing, but it's a mutual thing both parties almost enjoy. So Trump, in the Trumpian way, was just kind of naked about his ambition to do it.
INSKEEP: Well, Mike Murphy, thanks for taking the time, appreciate your insights.
MURPHY: Thank you.
INSKEEP: He is a Republican strategist and hosts the "Hacks On Tap" podcast - great name - with David Axelrod. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.