Puzder withdraws bid for labor secretary amid GOP opposition, fierce labor campaign

CKE Restaurants CEO Andy Puzder / AP
February 15, 2017

Andy Puzder withdrew his name from consideration for labor secretary on Wednesday, becoming the Trump administration's first failed cabinet nominee.

Trump tapped Puzder, the CEO of CKE Restaurants, which owns fast food restaurants Hardee's and Carl's Jr., to lead the Labor Department in December. Puzder ended his nomination the day before he was scheduled for a confirmation hearing with the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Puzder said in a statement that he made the decision "after careful consideration and discussions with my family." He thanked Trump for the nomination and pledged to continue to support the administration.

"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," Puzder said in the statement.

Democrats and union activists waged a fierce campaign against the nomination from the outset. Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., NY) said the party would present a united front against Puzder and would use "everything we can to stop" the nomination.

The opposition campaign extended beyond Capitol Hill, as the National Labor Relations Board was flooded with unfair labor practice complaints against CKE Restaurants. The company repeatedly denied the allegations, pointing out that nearly all of its restaurants are franchised, so local business owners are responsible for payroll and workplace policies.

One insider close to the confirmation process said the Puzder team was not given the resources necessary to rebut attacks against his record. The source said Republicans and outside supporters abandoned Puzder.

"Outside groups spent upwards of $10 million to support other controversial nominees, but there was no paid or well-coordinated outside effort to defend Puzder’s record or push back on attacks by the labor unions against Puzder's record," he said. "Other than organic efforts, [they] mostly left Puzder out to dry. I think it's reflective of the lack of financial resources Puzder's industry has been willing to put into modern day campaigns, which take a well-organized public affairs, lobbying, and grassroots effort in order to be successful."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) decried Puzder's nomination on the Senate floor shortly after rumors of Puzder's withdrawal became public. She called Puzder "divisive" and criticized Carl's Jr. advertisements featuring women in bikinis.

"Mr. Puzder is a terrible choice to head the agency charged with ensuring that women and men are treated fairly in the work place," she said. "I understand that no matter who President Trump picks to run the labor department I'm probably going to have a lot of issues with that person, but this is different—Andrew Puzder should not be the labor secretary."

However, Democrats did not have the votes to singlehandedly block the nomination. Puzder withdrew amid skepticism from Republican senators.

Union activists launched an extensive campaign to woo moderate Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine), who are members of the labor committee and broke ranks with their party to oppose Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

At least four other Republican senators, including Tim Scott (S.C.) and Johnny Isakson (Ga.), indicated they were on the fence, leading insiders to suspect he would fall short of the 50 votes needed for a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence. The vice president cast a historic tie-breaking vote to confirm DeVos last week.

Puzder, the first career businessman nominated for labor secretary since 1981, faced intense scrutiny over his past. The week before his withdrawal, he admitted to employing an illegal immigrant household worker and not paying taxes for that worker. He also expressed opposition to Trump's immigration positions in 2015, angering immigration hawks. On Wednesday, a 27-year-old videotape of his ex-wife alleging spousal abuse on the Oprah Winfrey Show surfaced, although she rescinded those claims.

Labor watchdogs and industry allies praised Puzder following his withdrawal. Robert Cresanti, president and CEO of the International Franchise Association, said the fast food CEO would have reversed Obama-era policies that "paralyzed small businesses."

"His decision to withdraw is just another example of his character as someone willing to put himself aside on behalf of the greater good," he said in a statement. "He would've been a great addition to President Trump's Administration. His fair and measured approach to managing the Labor Department would've reversed the course of the job-killing regulations implemented over the last eight years."

Puzder's withdrawal came two days after Mike Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, was forced to resign amid a scandal about his contacts with Russian officials. The Trump administration has yet to name a new nominee for either position.