RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta is defending a plea deal that he oversaw nearly a dozen years ago as a U.S. attorney in Florida.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Yeah. That deal allowed the financier Jeffrey Epstein to avoid federal charges for sexually abusing young girls. In a press conference yesterday, Acosta said his office handled the case right.
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ALEX ACOSTA: I know that in 2019 looking back on 2008, things may look different. But this was the judgment of prosecutors with dozens of years of experience.
KING: People started looking at that plea deal again when prosecutors in New York charged Epstein with sex trafficking last weekend.
MARTIN: We've got NPR's lead political editor Domenico Montanaro with us this morning.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.
MARTIN: So the secretary of Labor, Alex Costa, spoke for almost an hour yesterday. What else did he say?
MONTANARO: Well, he said it was a difficult case and that Epstein was going to be essentially let off the hook if he didn't intervene. So let's listen to part of his justification.
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ACOSTA: There is a value to a short guilty plea because letting him walk, letting what the state attorney was ready to do go forward would have been absolutely awful.
MONTANARO: Now, Acosta said that he wasn't going to roll the dice on not getting a conviction. He wanted Epstein to go to jail. He wanted him to register as a sex offender, even though the sentence wound up being very light. And the man who was that Palm Beach County state attorney at the time is now saying that Acosta's recollection was completely wrong, that he had an indictment prepared but was abandoned after secret negotiations between Epstein's lawyers and Acosta.
But it gets more tangled because in the big Miami Herald story on all this last year, you might remember, the police involved at the time who were going after Epstein actually blame that same Palm Beach County state attorney for pressuring them to downgrade the charges or drop the case altogether.
MARTIN: A tangled web, to be sure. So let's talk about the political implications of this. I mean, we know there's been a lot of pressure from Democrats pointing to Acosta and saying, you got to quit, putting pressure on the president to fire him. But the Labor secretary has also had some critics on the right.
MONTANARO: Well, yeah. I mean, there haven't been many on Capitol Hill, I'll say that. They've been mostly defending him and sticking by the president's line. But there have been reports that the president's chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, was unhappy with Acosta for not being more aggressive in dismantling some of these Obama-era workplace regulations. And Acosta dismissed that tension, though, yesterday, saying that Mulvaney told him to, quote - say that any talk of problems between them is, quote, "BS."
MARTIN: So this is such a horrible story, really, when you sit, and you read the details of it. And it makes you wonder if there's any political cost for the president. I mean, when there's such universal disgust with these allegations, does the president bear a political cost if he keeps Acosta around?
MONTANARO: Well, look, you know, he's the producer-in-chief. And, you know, there was lots of reporting that he wanted Acosta to actually do this press conference to show that - you know, that he could handle this. He didn't apologize to victims, and Trump doesn't like people who apologize. Vice President Mike Pence gave a kind of tepid statement afterward yesterday saying that he serves at the pleasure of the president, as do all the Cabinet members.
And we're in this odd situation where President Trump himself was friends with Jeffrey Epstein some years ago before he says they had a falling-out. And it's notable that former President Bill Clinton did as well. So we'll see where any of this winds up going or if any of that sticks.
MARTIN: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thank you.
MONTANARO: You're welcome.
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MARTIN: OK. The British navy is saying that it was able to stop an Iranian paramilitary vessel or vessels from blocking the passage of a British commercial ship in the Strait of Hormuz.
KING: Yeah. This is notable because there has been a lot going on in the Strait of Hormuz recently, including some attacks on oil tankers. It's a tense time between Iran and other world powers, especially the United States. President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear agreement last year, and he recently imposed new sanctions on Iran.
MARTIN: Right. So what does this latest alleged move by Iran mean for all of that? We've got Washington Post reporter Erin Cunningham on the line with us from Dubai.
Erin, thanks for being with us.
ERIN CUNNINGHAM: Hi. Thanks so much.
MARTIN: What more can you tell us about what happened?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, it's unclear exactly what happened. But what the British government is saying is that these Iranian vessels, there were three of them. They approached the tanker, the British Heritage, that had been in the Persian Gulf and was traveling through the Strait of Hormuz and attempted to stop it. Now, the tanker was being escorted by a British navy ship. And so they were able to, you know - that ship, that escort, was able to signal to the Iranians that they should turn away. And they did, and it was able to pass safely after that.
From the U.S. side, you know, some U.S. officials were saying that the Iranians had attempted to seize the vessel, but it's just not clear that that's what happened. It may have been sort of, you know, they wanted to, you know, make a point, harass the ship in the waterway. And so that's where we stand right now.
MARTIN: Right. And this is not happening in a vacuum, obviously. As Noel alluded to, at some level this is all about the Iran nuclear deal and Iran continuing to agitate the United States, which pulled out of the deal, but also trying to pressure the current signatories to the deal to live up to their end of the bargain and give Iran the financial benefits that it thinks it deserves. So how is this likely - I mean, this was a British - this is a British tanker. How is it likely to change Britain's calculus on Iran and the nuclear deal?
CUNNINGHAM: I'm not entirely sure that it will. And with - you know, with the United Kingdom, they've been sort of in the middle between the hardline U.S. position and sort of the softer European position that, you know, has been emphasizing diplomacy and wants to sort of, you know, keep Iran in the fray and within the deal. Now, the U.K. is committed to the nuclear agreement, and it has said that on multiple occasions. But it's also been a bit more forceful in condemning what it says are sort of malign Iranian activities in the Persian Gulf and in the Strait of Hormuz.
So I think that you'll see sort of a harder line from the U.K. after this. But it's not clear that they will support, you know, extra sanctions, for example, or if they will, you know, scale back their own commitments under the nuclear deal as well.
MARTIN: Erin Cunningham from The Washington Post, thank you very much for being with us this morning. We appreciate it.
CUNNINGHAM: Thank you.
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MARTIN: One of the biggest teachers' unions in this country is suing the U.S. Department of Education.
KING: That's right. NPR obtained the complaint exclusively, and it alleges that a student loan forgiveness program is in such a shambles that it's actually illegal. Now, this program is supposed to forgive student loans for people who have worked 10 years in public service jobs. But for a lot of people, that is not what's happening.
MARTIN: NPR's Chris Arnold has been covering this story, uncovered it in the first place, and he's with us now.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So just tell us more about this suit. Who's filing it, and why?
ARNOLD: Well, the American Federation of Teachers is filing it, but this goes far beyond teachers. This involves the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which was created by Congress a decade ago. And it was created to encourage public service, so government and nonprofit work - that's police officers, nurses, Peace Corps volunteers, all kinds of jobs. Government made a promise, basically, if you work for 10 years in public service, and you make 10 years of a loan payments, the government will forgive the rest of your federal student loans - which is, like, a great promise, right?
MARTIN: Great. Yeah.
ARNOLD: The problem is that only 1% of people who do this - you know, they think they're on track. They do it for 10 years. They make all these payments. They go to get approved.
ARNOLD: Only 1% get approved. Almost everybody's getting rejected.
MARTIN: So people who took certain jobs with the entire intention of getting their student debt erased after 10 years, they're not getting the help they thought they would.
ARNOLD: Exactly. And we talked to Christopher Peterson. He's a former top attorney at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He says, if you could get all of these people who were getting rejected into one place, basically you'd have...
CHRISTOPHER PETERSON: You know, football stadiums full of nurses, firefighters, teachers, law enforcement officers that are seeking to have their debts forgiven, having made all of these payments under the impression that they were on track and are now - they're being turned away in droves.
ARNOLD: So, you know, that's pretty bad. And it's sparking a lot of outcry and a bunch of lawsuits.
MARTIN: But what's the justification? I mean, why aren't those loans getting forgiven?
ARNOLD: Well, one big problem is that, to get loan forgiveness, things get a little complicated. And you have to be in the right type of federal loan and the right type of repayment plan. And people are saying that, well, look, I called my loan servicing company. I called that 800 number on my statement, and I got bad information. They never told me I needed to change into this kind of loan. And then 10 years later, they find out, oops, you know, oh, sorry. Nothing we can do now.
We talked to Debbie Baker, who's a music teacher in Tulsa, Okla. This happened to her. She says she got stuck with $76,000 that she thought was about to be forgiven.
DEBBIE BAKER: And when this hit, I just - I didn't know whether to cry, throw up, get mad - I just didn't know what to do. I honestly did not think the federal government would do this to someone.
MARTIN: So what happens to someone like Debbie? I mean, is this lawsuit now going to make a difference for her and her debt?
ARNOLD: Well, she's a plaintiff, so quite possibly. Who knows? But for everybody else, the lawsuit's trying to get the Ed. Department to come up with an appeals process that could work for lots and lots of people. We should say that the Department of Education recently implemented a dramatic fix to a different program, which we reported on, the TEACH Grant program. And that now is returning grant money to thousands of people who had grants taken away unfairly. So fixes are possible.
MARTIN: Is the Department of Education say anything - saying anything about this?
ARNOLD: So far - the lawsuit's just being filed this morning. They don't have a comment yet.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Chris Arnold for us this morning on this lawsuit against the Department of Education.
Chris, thanks. We appreciate it.
ARNOLD: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAID'S "DILATONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.