WASHINGTON (AP) — Jeffrey Epstein has hobnobbed with some of the world's most powerful people during his jet-setting life. Future President Donald Trump called him a "terrific guy." Former President Bill Clinton praised his intellect and philanthropic efforts and was a frequent flyer aboard his private jet.
The arrest of the billionaire financier on child sex trafficking charges is raising questions about how much his high-powered associates knew about the hedge fund manager's interactions with underage girls, and whether they turned a blind eye to potentially illegal conduct.
It's also putting new scrutiny on Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who, as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, was involved in a 2008 secret plea deal that allowed Epstein to avoid federal charges.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Tuesday that Trump hasn't spoken to or had any contact with Epstein in "years and years and years."
"The president told me this morning he hasn't talked to Epstein, he doesn't think he's talked to him or seen him in 10 or 15 years," Conway told reporters at the White House. "Like everyone else," she said Trump sees the charges against Epstein as "completely unconscionable and obviously criminal. Disgusting."
Conway also defended Acosta, repeatedly beseeching reporters to remember who the "perpetrator is here."
In his most extensive known public comments about Epstein, Trump told New York magazine in 2002 that he'd known the financier for 15 years and praised him as a "terrific guy."
"He's a lot of fun to be with," Trump was quoted as saying. "It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it - Jeffrey enjoys his social life."
Trump Organization attorney Alan Garten has since distanced Trump from Epstein, telling Politico in 2017 that Trump "had no relationship with Mr. Epstein and had no knowledge whatsoever of his conduct."
Asked about the charges on Sunday, Trump said, "I don't know about it."
Epstein was also an associate of Clinton's, repeatedly lending the former president his jet to travel overseas. Flight logs obtained by Fox News showed the former president took at least 26 trips aboard Epstein's Boeing 727, nicknamed the "Lolita Express," from 2001 to 2003. That "included extended junkets around the world with Epstein and fellow passengers identified on manifests by their initials or first names, including 'Tatiana,'" the outlet found.
"Jeffrey is both a highly successful financier and a committed philanthropist with a keen sense of global markets and an in-depth knowledge of twenty-first-century science," Clinton told New York magazine though a spokesman for that same 2002 story. "I especially appreciated his insights and generosity during the recent trip to Africa to work on democratization, empowering the poor, citizen service, and combating HIV/AIDS."
Clinton spokesman Angel Ureña said the former president "knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York." He said that, in 2002 and 2003, Clinton took four trips on Epstein's plane with multiple stops and that staff and his Secret Service detail traveled on every leg.
"He's not spoken to Epstein in well over a decade, and has never been to Little St. James Island, Epstein's ranch in New Mexico, or his residence in Florida," Ureña added.
Also back in the spotlight is Acosta, Trump's labor secretary, due to his role in the deal that ended an earlier investigation involving at least 40 teenage girls. The deal allowed Epstein to avoid federal charges and a possible life sentence. Instead, Epstein pleaded guilty to state charges in Florida and served 13 months in jail, during which he was allowed to leave for work during the day.
"I want real justice for these underage survivors - and Acosta to finally answer for his weak plea agreement," tweeted Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who was among a number of congressional Democrats who had asked the Justice Department to reopen the case.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went further, tweeting Monday night that Acosta should resign. "As US Attorney, he engaged in an unconscionable agreement w/ Jeffrey Epstein kept secret from courageous, young victims preventing them from seeking justice," Pelosi wrote.
Conway said of Pelosi's tweet: "It's classic her and her Democratic Party to not focus on the perpetrator and instead to focus on a member of the Trump administration. They're so obsessed with this president that they immediately go to Alex Acosta rather than Jeffrey Epstein."
Conway responded to questions about Acosta's future in the administration by shifting the focus to Epstein. The Department of Labor referred questions to the Department of Justice, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Then-White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters in February that the White House was looking into Acosta's handling of the case, but offered no further updates. Trump said in February that he didn't know much about the case but volunteered that Acosta had done "a great job" as labor secretary. As for the Epstein case, Trump added, "That seems like a long time ago."
Acosta has previously called the deal appropriate.
Epstein is accused of paying underage girls hundreds of dollars in cash for massages and then molesting them at his homes in Florida and New York. He "intentionally sought out minors and knew that many of his victims were in fact under the age of 18," according to prosecutors, who said he also paid some of his victims to "recruit additional girls to be similarly abused."
Epstein pleaded not guilty Monday to sex trafficking charges.
Follow Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj