Mr. Acosta has rankled some in the West Wing over his reluctance to move rapidly on Mr. Trump’s deregulatory agenda, which could cause him trouble now, aides said.
Joe Grogan, Mr. Trump’s domestic policy adviser, has long been skeptical of Mr. Acosta for failing to expedite Mr. Trump’s apprenticeship agenda, which is backed by the president’s daughter Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner. Earlier this year, Mr. Grogan forced out Mr. Acosta’s chief of staff, in a move aimed at prodding Mr. Acosta to comply with White House demands.
Their relationship has improved recently, aides said. But the Epstein controversy has damaged Mr. Acosta’s reputation in the White House — and all but killed Mr. Acosta’s ultimate goal of getting a judicial appointment in the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which encompasses Florida, aides said.
None of Mr. Acosta’s fellow prosecutors in the Miami United States attorney’s office have come forward to publicly defend his conduct in the Epstein case. But two former Acosta colleagues and another former Justice Department lawyer familiar with the case cast his role in a more favorable light.
The case, they said, was flawed from the moment that F.B.I. officials, frustrated that local prosecutors could not get Mr. Epstein labeled a sex offender, presented it to Mr. Acosta’s office in hopes of getting a tougher penalty.
The case was a headache from the start. In 2006, Mr. Epstein’s high-powered legal team met with senior prosecutors in Mr. Acosta’s office to persuade them to drop the case. Alan Dershowitz, one of Mr. Epstein’s lawyers, argued that the federal sex trafficking law cited in the 53-page indictment prepared by the F.B.I. made the case difficult because Mr. Acosta’s team would have to prove that Mr. Epstein crossed state lines with the intent to abuse minors.
Mr. Acosta and his team were already aware of the complications; at the time, only a handful of Mr. Epstein’s young accusers were known, and local prosecutors in Palm Beach had been frustrated by the lack of cooperation among some alleged victims, whom they suspected were either being paid off or intimidated by Mr. Epstein. Others gave contradictory statements that Mr. Epstein’s legal team would likely pick apart in court, according to attorneys involved in the case.