WASHINGTON – Andrew Puzder, President Donald Trump’s choice to serve as the next labor secretary, withdrew his nomination Wednesday amid growing resistance from Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.
“After careful consideration and discussions with my family, I am withdrawing my nomination for Secretary of Labor,” Puzder said in a statement. “I am honored to have been considered by President Donald Trump to lead the Department of Labor and put America’s workers and businesses back on a path to sustainable prosperity.”
He continued: “I want [to] thank President Trump for his nomination. I also thank my family and my many supporters – employees, businesses, friends and people who have voiced their praise and hopeful optimism for the policies and new thinking I would have brought to America as Secretary of Labor. While I won’t be serving in the administration, I fully support the President and his highly qualified team.”
In the hours leading up to Puzder’s withdrawal, 12 Republican senators “at a minimum” were withholding support, according to one GOP senator, who asked for anonymity to avoid political retribution. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had told the White House that Puzder lacked the votes needed to win confirmation, according to a senior Senate aide.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee would have led the hearing, said Puzder had the experience and ability to serve as labor secretary. “I respect his decision. He understands the difficulties American workers face in a rapidly changing workforce, and I look forward to continuing to hear his insights.”
Democrats cheered the news, celebrating that they had finally helped pressure Republicans to withdraw support for a Trump nominee.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said the withdrawal “is a victory for the American worker. Puzder should never have even been nominated to lead the Labor Department, and Senate Republicans clearly recognized this, too.” He called on Trump to nominate someone who “champions workers’ rights rather than suppresses them.”
Puzder, a restaurant executive and Trump campaign supporter, had attracted widespread criticism regarding his business record and personal background. Additionally, a prominent conservative publication announced its opposition to the pick on Wednesday, saying that Puzder’s support for more legal immigration is at odds with Trump’s position.
Some Republican senators initially said they were withholding support until they could see how the political novice fared at his confirmation hearing, which was scheduled for Thursday morning. But it became clear to Republican Senate leaders Wednesday that they did not have the votes to confirm him.
Puzder, the chief executive of CKE Restaurants, was set to appear before the HELP Committee for a long-delayed hearing amid a protracted review of his vast personal wealth, details of a rancorous divorce more than 25 years ago and revelations that his family once employed an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper.
Democrats on the panel who opposed Puzder were vowing to show racy images of bikini-clad models eating hamburgers who appeared in television commercials run by his restaurant chains. His supporters were planning to eat biscuits from Hardee’s – one of Puzder’s burger chains – for breakfast while tracking the hearing from a makeshift war room.
Before the hearing, Republicans were showing a notable level of skepticism about one of Trump’s last Cabinet nominees – and certainly the most imperiled – to proceed through Senate confirmation.
“He’s got an awful lot of people who speak highly of him, but all these nominees have a process that they have to go through where they’ve got to respond to the questions people have on their backgrounds and their records, and I want to have that opportunity,” said Sen. John Thune , S.D., the third-ranking Senate Republican, who was among those withholding support.
Although Republicans had questions about Puzder’s personal employment practices, Democrats had planned to question him about allegations – long since recanted – that he assaulted his ex-wife, his past criticism of minimum-wage laws and his personnel practices, as well as advertising campaigns at his restaurant chains that women’s groups consider sexist.
“I expect straightforward and clear answers,” Sen. Patty Murray, Wash., the top Democrat on the committee, said Wednesday as she met with representatives from women’s organizations that opposed Puzder.
As a restaurant executive, Puzder has spent much of his career speaking out against wage and labor regulations. The former commercial trial lawyer has been a staunch opponent of rules finalized by the Labor Department last year and since put on hold that would have expanded the number of people eligible for overtime pay. He also has been critical of substantially increasing the minimum wage, arguing that it could push companies to cut jobs and encourage businesses to invest more money in automation.
Puzder would have been the first labor secretary since the Ronald Reagan era to take the job without some public service experience. He made a minor foray into politics in 2011, when he served as an economic adviser and spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who recently endorsed his nomination.
In 2016, Puzder was an avid Trump supporter. In addition to serving as an economic adviser to his campaign, he and his wife, Deanna Puzder, contributed a total of $332,000 to Trump’s bid, joint fundraising committees and to the Republican National Committee, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Despite public resistance to Puzder, White House officials and top Republican aides insisted as late as Wednesday morning that the confirmation hearing would proceed as scheduled and that Puzder would be confirmed.
“I’m a strong supporter of Andy Puzder. I think he’s uniquely qualified for this job,” McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday. “We hope we’ll be able to get his hearing this week and deal with him when we get back” after next week’s congressional recess.
Senators often do not weigh in on a nominee publicly until after a confirmation hearing, but Republicans have been mostly in lock-step to support Trump’s top Cabinet nominees. Only one other pick, Rex Tillerson to serve as secretary of state, drew as much public wavering among Republicans before his hearing, when five GOP senators expressed doubts. Ultimately, all of them voted for Tillerson.
In addition to Thune, Republican Sens. Rob Portman, Ohio, Thom Tillis, N.C., Susan Collins, Maine, Johnny Isakson, Ga., Lisa Murkowski, Alaska, and Tim Scott, S.C., said this week that they were on the fence regarding Puzder. Collins, Isakson, Murkowski and Scott sit on the HELP Committee while the others do not, signaling that the concerns about Puzder were widespread.
Thune’s hesitancy was notable because his leadership role makes him responsible for helping to build support for big-ticket GOP causes. But he told reporters Wednesday that he wanted to know more about why Puzder employed an undocumented housekeeper and how he paid her. Tillis cited the same concerns to reporters.
Puzder revealed to a Senate committee this month that he was unaware of the woman’s immigration status when he hired her. She was terminated and Puzder later paid federal and state back taxes.
Collins and Murkowski also voted against Betsy DeVos, Trump’s choice for education secretary, forcing Vice President Mike Pence to become the first vice president to cast a tiebreaking confirmation vote for a Cabinet member. Both senators are among several who have seen footage of a 1990 “Oprah Winfrey Show” episode in which Puzder’s former wife appeared in disguise to describe allegations of domestic violence.
The HELP Committee requested that Winfrey’s production company provide copies of the episode for senators to review. Puzder has always denied the allegations, and his ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, recanted the accusations in a letter to senators last month.
Aides said before Puzder’s withdrawal that Portman was still reviewing his history and did not want to weigh in yet, but the senator represents a state where labor unions were building support against the nomination. Portman won reelection last year with the endorsement of several labor unions, a rare feat these days for a Republican.
On Wednesday, Puzder’s nomination was dealt another blow when the conservative National Review announced its opposition. The publication cited Puzder’s past support for increased levels of legal immigration for high-skilled or seasonal workers – a position at odds with Trump’s calls for limited legal immigration.
“The case for his confirmation has diminished to the point of disappearing,” the publication wrote in an editorial. “Not only is Puzder a representative of the worst reflex of corporate America on one of Trump’s signature issues, he is now significantly weakened.”
The magazine’s editors acknowledged “the impulse of the White House and the Senate to try to bulldog through rather than to give obstructionist Democrats a scalp.” But they added, “The country, and the administration, can weather a redo on this one.”
Amid that opposition, Puzder’s allies had been preparing for an aggressive campaign to boost his chances. Restaurant groups especially had been intensifying attempts to persuade skeptical senators.
The National Restaurant Association arranged for 10 senators, including Isakson and Scott, to meet Wednesday with a group of CKE employees who the association says enjoy working for Puzder’s restaurants.
On Thursday, the association had planned to host a “war room” with other industry groups, including the National Retail Federation and the International Franchise Association, that would have been able to respond quickly to issues raised during the hearing.
The group had also planned to munch on those Hardee’s biscuits, delivered from one of the chain’s restaurants in Glen Burnie, Maryland.
“It is extremely unfortunate that the confirmation process has resulted in a qualified and dedicated man withdrawing from the labor secretary nomination,” said Cicely Simpson, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association. “Andy Puzder would have made a great labor secretary. We hope that President Trump’s next labor secretary nominee, like Andy, has experience creating jobs and a deep understanding how to get business and government to work together to grow the economy.”
The Washington Post’s Paul Kane and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.
Andrew Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants and President Trump’s pick for labor secretary, withdrew his nomination on Feb. 15.