Labor Secretary Alex Acosta said Friday he will resign amid controversy over the way he handled a sex crimes case against wealthy businessman Jeffrey Epstein a decade ago when he was U.S. attorney for southern Florida.
Acosta made the announcement to reporters while standing next to President Donald Trump outside the White House. Trump said Acosta had called him Friday morning and that it was Acosta’s decision to quit.
“This was him, not me, because I’m with him,” Trump said in a lengthy exchange with the press before departing the White House en route to events in Wisconsin and Ohio. “I said, ‘You don’t have to do this.'”
President Donald Trump talks to reporters next to Labor Secretary Alex Acosta as he departs for travel to Milwaukee, Wisconsin from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, July 12, 2019.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
Acosta told reporters that he did not want his involvement in Epstein’s controversy to overshadow the administration’s accomplishments. Acosta said he will officially resign a week after his announcement. Deputy Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella will take his place in an acting capacity, Trump said.
In his resignation letter to Trump, Acosta said, “It has meant so much to me that you have offered your steadfast support in our private discussions and in your public remarks.” But “your agenda, putting the American people first, must avoid any distractions,” Acosta wrote.
The resignation came two days after Acosta gave a news conference in which he defended a controversial non-prosecution agreement he had made with Epstein’s lawyers in 2007, when Acosta was the top prosecutor in Miami.
The issue resurfaced on July 6, when the politically connected Epstein, whose friends have included Trump and former President Bill Clinton, was arrested on sex trafficking charges by federal prosecutors in New York.
Epstein is accused of luring dozens of underage girls to his Manhattan mansion to give him massages that escalated into sex acts. He is charged in New York with one count of sex trafficking of minors and one count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors.
Epstein had long been under investigation by both federal and local law enforcement for sex crimes against underage girls that took place from 2002 to 2005 in New York and Florida.
Acosta, as a U.S. attorney, struck a secret plea deal with Epstein allowing him to avoid federal prosecution on similar charges.
Epstein was required to register as a sex offender and ended up serving a custodial sentence of 13 months in jail, where he was allowed out during the day on work release.
U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein appears in a photograph taken for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services’ sex offender registry March 28, 2017 and obtained by Reuters July 10, 2019. New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services/Handout via REUTERS.
New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services | Handout | Reuters
Even Acosta expressed frustration with the lax punishment Epstein received. “The work release was complete BS,” Acosta said in Wednesday’s news conference. He said that his office intended for Epstein to carry out all of his sentence, which he expected to be 18 months, behind bars.
In those remarks, Acosta maintained that his office at the time was “trying to do the right thing for these victims.”
“We believe we proceeded appropriately,” Acosta said. “We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail.”
The non-prosecution agreement struck between Epstein and Acosta’s office was also concealed from the victims in the case. A Florida judge ruled in February 2019 that the team of Miami prosecutors led by Acosta broke the law when they hid the deal from the more than 30 underage victims who had allegedly been sexually abused by Epstein.
At the time, then-press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the administration was “looking into the matter” but did not speculate on what was in store for Acosta.
“My understanding is that’s a very complicated case … but that they made the best possible decision and deal they could have gotten at that time,” she said.
On Tuesday, Acosta tried to justify past decisions in the Epstein case. “The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence,” Acosta tweeted.
“With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator.”
“Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”
Acosta was appointed United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in 2005 by George W. Bush. He previously served on the National Labor Relations Board and led the civil rights division of the Justice Department under Bush.
He was dean of the law school at Florida International University when he was tapped as Labor secretary by Trump in 2017. He was the first Hispanic in the Cabinet and the only one serving as of January 2019.
“He has had a tremendous career,” Trump said at a press conference announcing the appointment. “I’ve wished him the best; we just spoke. I think he’ll be a tremendous secretary of Labor.”
Read Acosta’s resignation letter to Trump below:
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, takes a bigger role in China trade talks
Senior Advisor Jared Kushner listens while US President Donald Trump announces an agreement with Guatemala regarding people seeking asylum in the Oval Office of the White House on July 26, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has added another role to his long list of White House duties — U.S.-China trade negotiator — as Washington and Beijing try to reach an initial agreement to avoid new U.S. tariffs on Dec. 15.
People familiar with the talks said Kushner, who helped bring the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement (USMCA) to fruition, has increased his direct involvement in the negotiations with China over the past two weeks.
While the talks have made some progress, these people said the two sides have not yet agreed on the extent to which the United States will remove existing tariffs on Chinese goods and on specific commitments by China to increase purchases of U.S. agriculture products.
A White House official confirmed Kushner’s involvement but declined to provide specific details on the influence he has had on the negotiations. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official said Kushner has recently met with Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the United States.
The two have met multiple times since Trump took office, establishing a kind of back-channel relationship, trade experts say.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been leading negotiations with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He for the past two years over a range of U.S. complaints about China’s trade and subsidy practices, including the forced transfer of American technology to Chinese firms.
“Jared has been engaged in the process from the beginning in full coordination and in support of Ambassador Lighthizer’s and Secretary Mnuchin’s efforts,” the White House official said.
Kushner played a pivotal role in the later stages of U.S. trade negotiations with Canada and Mexico in 2018 to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, helping to resolve final differences. Lighthizer said the USMCA deal “would not have happened if it wasn’t for Jared.”
Former Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, with whom Kushner met frequently, said Kushner patched up the negotiations more than once after they fell apart.
Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, has taken on many challenges during the past three years, including trying to develop a Middle East peace plan, working on changes to U.S. immigration policies and advising Trump on dealing with opioid addiction and problems with Department of Veterans Affairs.
But sealing a deal with China could prove daunting. U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, speaking to Reuters on Tuesday, rejected any deadlines for a deal and launched a fresh attack on Chinese telecom equipment giant Huawei, accusing it of telling suppliers to move operations overseas to skirt U.S. sanctions.
Pelosi directs House Dems to proceed with articles of impeachment against Trump
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday asked the House committees investigating President Donald Trump to proceed with articles of impeachment.
“The president’s actions have seriously violated the Constitution,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement to reporters on Capitol Hill.
He “leaves us no choice but to act,” she said.
Pelosi spoke for about six minutes. She took no questions.
House Democrats are in the midst of an inquiry into whether Trump abused his power by withholding military aid to Ukraine in exchange for that country announcing investigations for his own political benefit and at the expense of U.S. interests.
Pelosi’s comments confirm what was widely expected: that the Democrat-controlled House will vote on whether to impeach the president.
“Sadly, but with confidence and humility, with allegiance to our founders, and our heart full of love for America, today I am asking our chairmen to proceed with the articles of impeachment,” she said.
Minutes after Pelosi concluded her remarks, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a tweet that “we look forward to a fair trial in the Senate.”
The Judiciary Committee, led by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., will be responsible for drafting specific articles of impeachment. On Wednesday, Nadler’s committee held a public hearing with four legal scholars who discussed whether Trump’s efforts toward Ukraine met the constitutional bar for impeachment.
Trump bashed that proceeding in a pair of tweets prior to Pelosi’s remarks Thursday morning.
“The Do Nothing Democrats had a historically bad day yesterday in the House. They have no Impeachment case and are demeaning our Country. But nothing matters to them, they have gone crazy,” he tweeted.
Trump added the Republican-led Senate will call Pelosi to testify, along with former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, whom Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to “look into” in a July 25 phone call that helped spark the impeachment probe.
The Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Monday morning on the evidence gathered in the impeachment inquiry, Nadler’s panel announced Thursday.
US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks about the impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on December 5, 2019.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images
Trump and his allies have accused Democrats of ignoring the business of governing by focusing entirely on the impeachment proceedings. “Democrats are too busy hosting a panel of law professors to criticize president Trump on television instead of the things the American people actually need us to address,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Thursday.
Pelosi clapped back at a news conference later that day.
“The Grim Reaper says all we’re doing is impeachment,” Pelosi said, referring to a nickname for McConnell, who has refused to take up many House-passed bills, that he and his supporters have championed.
“No. We have 275 bipartisan bills on your desk,” including legislation that would strengthen background checks for gun purchases, Pelosi said.
The president also claimed that House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who led weeks of private and public impeachment hearings with fact witnesses, will be called to appear in the Senate trial.
A 300-page report published Tuesday, which was compiled by Schiff and Democrats on the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees, synthesized the evidence gathered from those hearings.
It also contained documentary evidence, including phone records that show the Intelligence panel’s top-ranking Republican, Rep. Devin Nunes, calling key figures in the impeachment probe. Those figures include Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who was deeply involved in the Ukraine efforts, as well as Giuliani associate Lev Parnas, who was arrested in October and charged with conspiracy, lying to the Federal Election Commission and falsifying records.
“The facts are uncontested,” Pelosi said in her remarks. “The president abused his power for his own personal political benefit at the expense of our national security by withholding military aid and crucial oval office meeting in exchange for an announcement of an investigation into his political rival.”
This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.
— CNBC’s Yelena Dzhanova contributed to this report.
Russian malware hackers charged in evil corp $100 million bank scheme
The U.S. Justice and Treasury departments took action Thursday against a Russian hacking group known as “Evil Corp.,” which stole “at least” $100 million from banks using malicious software that swiped banking credentials, according to a joint press release.
“Evil Corp.,” a name reminiscent of the nickname for the key malevolent corporation in the popular television drama “Mr. Robot,” is “run by a group of individuals based in Moscow, Russia, who have years of experience and well-developed, trusted relationships with each other,” according to a Treasury Department press release.
The criminal group used a type of malware known as “Dridex,” which worked to evade common antivirus software and spread through emailed phishing campaigns. Once infected, the malware was able to steal login credentials and empty the accounts of bank employees and bank customers, forwarding the proceeds to offshore accounts held by Evil Corp, according to the press release. The group also stole an estimated $70 million using a similar malware known as “Zeus.”
The federal agencies say Evil Corp.’s criminal proceeds likely are “significantly higher” than the estimated $100 million stolen, making the enterprise one of the biggest hacking groups ever, according to the release.
The Justice Department announced indictments against key ringleaders of the group, while the Treasury Department announced sanctions against Evil Corp. under the department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
“Treasury is sanctioning Evil Corp as part of a sweeping action against one of the world’s most prolific cybercriminal organizations. This coordinated action is intended to disrupt the massive phishing campaigns orchestrated by this Russian-based hacker group,” said Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury, in a statement. “OFAC’s action is part of a multiyear effort with key NATO allies, including the United Kingdom. Our goal is to shut down Evil Corp, deter the distribution of Dridex, target the “money mule” network used to transfer stolen funds, and ultimately to protect our citizens from the group’s criminal activities.”
The group targeted major corporations in addition to bank accounts using a variety of methods. Penneco Oil allegedly lost millions of dollars to Evil Corp., which were then transferred to a bank in Minsk, Belarus. The group also targeted, apparently unsuccessfully, the Sharon City School District in Western Pennsylvania, among other targets outside the financial services sector.
In all, the action targets 17 individuals associated with the organization, including Evil Corp.’s leader, Maksim Yakubets. The State Department has offered a $5 million reward for information on Yakubets.
In addition to his cybercriminal activities, Yakubets, “also provides direct assistance to the Russian government’s malicious cyber efforts, highlighting the Russian government’s enlistment of cybercriminals for its own malicious purposes,” according to the Treasury Department.
OFAC, Treasury and the Justice Department have been focused on taking action to spotlight the Russian government’s persistent use of known criminals in state-sponsored activity, which they have said blurs the lines between whether the activity is the work of strictly a criminal enterprise or Putin’s government itself.
However, it is rare for the U.S. government to successfully extradite criminals it has indicted from Russia, where most of those named in Wednesday’s action currently reside. Two Ukrainian co-conspirators named in the indictments, Yuriy Konovaleko and Yevhen Kulibaba, were extradited from the U.K. and pleaded guilty to conspiracy and racketeering charges in 2015. Both have already completed their sentences.
In addition to Yakubets, the actions name Denis Gusev “a senior member of Evil Corp,” who serves as the director of several other businesses based in Russia, including Biznes-Stolitsa, Optima, Treid-Invest, TSAO, Vertikal and Yunikom, which are involved in several different industries, among them trade, wholesale goods and forestry. The companies are also subject to OFAC sanctions, according to Treasury.
“Evil Corp relies upon a cadre of core individuals to carry out critical logistical, technical, and financial functions such as managing the Dridex malware, supervising the operators seeking to target new victims, and laundering the proceeds derived from the group’s activities.” Some of the other members cited for allegedly “providing material assistance” in this way, according to Treasury, are Dmitriy Smirnov, Artem Yakubets, Ivan Tuchkov, Andrey Plotnitskiy, Dmitriy Slobodskoy, and Kirill Slobodskoy.
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