President Donald Trump’s labor secretary, Alex Acosta, is facing calls to resign because of his role in negotiating a lenient 2008 plea deal for the financier Jeffrey Epstein, now charged with child sex trafficking by federal authorities in New York.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a spate of 2020 candidates, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have all insisted that Acosta—until now a relatively uncontroversial, low-drama, and low-key Trump appointee, even given all the questions about the Epstein deal—step down. But Trump has thus far resisted those calls, telling reporters that the deal happened in the past, that he feels bad for Acosta, and that the former prosecutor “has been just an excellent secretary of labor. He’s done, just, a fantastic job. Now part of it is our economy is so good, our unemployment numbers are at record lows.”
Leaving aside the question—and the question of how this is even a question—of whether being a “fantastic” high-level government official should give someone cover for letting a sexual predator continue to circulate in society, has Acosta really been so fantastic?
It is true that the economy is good and unemployment is low, as Trump said. By any number of measures, the economy is doing as well as it has since the late 1990s. But Acosta, and Trump, have little to do with it. This administration inherited an excellent, stable economy from Barack Obama. Trump’s policies have done little to change trends, for better or for worse. There has been no inflection point.
In this good economy, of course, workers have not fared nearly as well as businesses have, and the working class has not fared nearly as well as the 1 percent. The Trump administration has made sure of it, passing far bigger tax cuts for corporations and corporate executives than for nurses and janitors and schoolteachers; letting rich tax cheats, polluters, and the like get off easy; and slashing regulations designed to hem in corporate power.
Acosta has played a central role in that deregulation, helping ensure that the fruits of the longest expansion on record keep on benefiting businesses more so than workers. The Department of Labor is moving forward on a proposal to scale back an Obama-era expansion of overtime pay, stripping time-and-a-half compensation from millions of lower-income workers. It delayed a rule requiring that financial advisers commit to act in the best interests of their clients. It has also relaxed regulations designed to ensure that tipped workers are fully compensated and rolled back workplace-safety reporting rules.
Business lobbyists have been thrilled, labor unions and workers’ advocates less so, though many feared that the Department of Labor would have been even more aggressive in its regulatory agenda than it has been. Indeed, Acosta has come under pressure within the Trump administration for not being swift or forceful enough—with Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff and all-purpose, high-level handyman, stepping in to move things along.
Even so, a government less interested in workplace injuries, less devoted to ensuring that tipped workers get paid fairly or that low-income wage workers get overtime: That is the legacy of Trump’s Department of Labor. An economy balanced more toward the rich and powerful and less toward lower-income workers: That is Trump’s legacy as an economic steward. With Epstein now facing the prospect of life in prison, who knows what Acosta’s legacy will be.