WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary R. Alexander Acosta on Wednesday publicly defended his role in overseeing the prosecution of Jeffrey Epstein on sex crimes charges in Florida over a decade ago, bucking a growing chorus of Democratic calls for his resignation.
Mr. Acosta said he had faced a tough choice between accepting a plea deal that was not as tough as he wished and going to trial with witnesses who were scared to testify, in what he described as “a roll of the dice” that might not have resulted in a conviction and prison term.
“I wanted to help them,” Mr. Acosta said of the victims during a nationally televised news conference at the Labor Department headquarters. “That is why we intervened. And that’s what the prosecutors of my office did — they insisted that he go to jail and put the world on notice that he was and is a sexual predator.”
Mr. 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 Trump watched and weighed a decision. Mr. Acosta said he had spoken with Mr. Trump and believed he had his backing.
“My relationship with the president is outstanding,” he said. “He has very publicly made clear that I’ve got his support.”
Mr. Acosta also denied that Mick Mulvaney, the White House chief of staff, had suggested he be forced out.
But while expressing empathy for the victims and applauding the new prosecution in New York, Mr. Acosta declined an opportunity to apologize or offer regrets for the decision he made back then.
“Look, no regrets is a very hard question,” he said. “You always look back and you say, ‘What if?’” He added: “We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail. He needed to go to jail. He needed to go to jail. And that was the focus.”
Mr. Acosta was serving as the United States attorney for the southern district of Florida when he brokered a sentence that resulted in Mr. Epstein serving 13 months in jail after being accused of sexually abusing dozens of young women and girls.
In February, the Justice Department opened an investigation into the handling of that case, and Mr. Epstein was indicted on Monday by the United States attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey S. Berman, on child sex trafficking charges.
In recent days, Mr. Acosta has weathered calls for his resignation from Democratic leaders, even as Mr. Trump has defended him. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump told reporters gathered at the White House that he felt “badly” for Mr. Acosta, but added that his administration would look into the handling of the matter “very carefully.”
Behind the scenes, Mr. Trump has been closely following the news coverage surrounding the Epstein case, and he has faced new scrutiny over his own personal relationship with Mr. Epstein, also a Palm Beach fixture.
The latest charges, along with the discovery of hundreds of nude images of young women or girls at Mr. Epstein’s New York residence, have created an angry public debate that has severely called into question Mr. Acosta’s past work to broker an initial plea deal.
The Miami Herald, which revealed the details of the plea deal in February and has called for Mr. Acosta to resign, persuaded several women who were abused as girls or young women to talk.
At his news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Acosta said he decided to intervene in what had been a state case because Mr. Epstein was going to get away without any time behind bars. He said some of the victims were traumatized and refused to testify, and that others actually exonerated Mr. Epstein.
“These cases, as I’ve said, are hard. They require a prosecutor to ask whether a plea that guarantees jail time and guarantees registration, to ask whether that plea versus going to trial,” Mr. Acosta said, mentioning Mr. Epstein’s registration as a sex offender. “How do you weigh those two if going to trial is viewed as a roll of the dice? The goal here was straightforward — put Epstein behind bars, ensure that he registers as a sexual offender.”
He explained the late notification of the victims by saying that it was unclear that Mr. Epstein would abide by the agreement and that prosecutors feared defense attorneys would use an effort by victims to recover restitution to undermine their credibility.
Mr. Acosta said that times have changed, and that juries today are more understanding of victims in such cases. “Today our judges do not allow victim shaming by defense attorneys,” he said, and added that outrage by the victims was “entirely appropriate.”
“The point I’m trying to make is everything that the victims have gone through in these cases is horrific, and their response is entirely justified,” Mr. Acosta said. “At the same time, I think it’s important to stand up for the prosecutors of my former office and make clear that what they were trying to do was help these victims.”
Mr. Acosta has privately reached out to allies for help handling the public relations debacle and inquired about potential post-government work should he be forced out, according to two people familiar with the matter.
In the end, Mr. Trump — who has dealt with harsh criticism engulfing several of his cabinet aides before — signaled that it was up to Mr. Acosta to defend himself, according to several White House officials familiar with that discussion.
In a sign that congressional Democrats are seeking to increase pressure on Mr. Acosta, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the chair of the Oversight and Reform Committee, sent a letter to the labor secretary Wednesday afternoon, requesting that he testify before the committee later this month about his decision to authorize a nonprosecution agreement for Mr. Epstein.
“Your testimony is even more critical now that federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York unsealed a new indictment earlier this week outlining a host of additional charges against Mr. Epstein,” Mr. Cummings said in the letter, “including luring dozens of teenage girls to his homes in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida, and paying them to engage in sexual activity with him.”
A handful of Mr. Trump’s allies are not so sure that he will remain supportive of Mr. Acosta as the news coverage continues. Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax and a confidant of the president’s, said in a CNN interview on Tuesday evening that administration officials who have encountered the sort of coverage that Mr. Acosta has attracted generally do not last long.
“My experience with Donald Trump is if he sees somebody is a bad apple,” Mr. Ruddy said, “he will stay as far away from that person as possible.”