Andrew Puzder, the fast-food executive whom President Trump nominated to be labor secretary, emerged Monday as Democrats’ last, best hope of defeating one of Trump’s Cabinet choices as four key Republicans are on the fence about his nomination.
The unenthusiastic reception from the Republican lawmakers comes after weeks of intense criticism from Democrats and liberal groups over workplace violations at Puzder’s restaurants Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., sexually suggestive ads featuring bikini-clad models eating burgers, and his opposition to wage regulations. Puzder has also been accused of domestic abuse — an accusation that was later recanted — and has acknowledged hiring an undocumented worker for his home.
Puzder, 66, has faced the most early skepticism of any nominee besides Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who won confirmation. The Republican senators who were noncommittal about Puzder’s nomination on Monday — Susan Collins (Maine), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Tim Scott (S.C.) — sit on the committee that will hold his confirmation hearing Thursday. If they oppose him, his nomination is all but certainly dead.
Even if Puzder makes it out of committee, his final status may come down to a tiebreaker vote from Vice President Mike Pence similar to what happened last week for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. It is the latest reminder of the paradox of Trump’s Cabinet nominees — they have struggled for confirmation more than the nominees of any other administration in recent history, but criticism that might have in the past doomed a candidate’s chances may no longer prove decisive.
Some Republicans say they are willing to overlook issues related to undocumented workers or unpaid taxes for the opportunity to have a business-minded leader in the Labor Department. But the racy ads and domestic violence allegations may test some conservatives and women’s groups.
Collins said Monday that she has reviewed footage of an “Oprah Winfrey Show” interview with Puzder’s ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, who once appeared in disguise on the program to discuss the multiple times, she says, that Puzder physically assaulted her in the 1980s. Fierstein retracted the allegations, and he has always denied that he abused her.
“I’m going to wait until the issues that have arisen are fully explored at his hearing,” Collins told reporters. “I am reviewing the other information that has come to light, and I’m sure all of this will be explored thoroughly,” she added, without specifying what information is of concern.
Collins’s revelation that senators have seen footage of Fierstein’s interview with Winfrey is notable, because Democrats and other organizations have been desperately seeking the footage for weeks in hopes of airing it and derailing Puzder’s nomination.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who chairs the health committee, told reporters Monday that he worked with Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the committee’s top Democrat, to arrange for senators to view a tape of the episode. Alexander said he has not seen the segment himself but he does plan to vote to approve Puzder’s nomination.
“His former wife has said it was all not true,” Alexander said. “She has reiterated that in a heartfelt letter to members of the committee and has been willing to talk to members of the committee, so I don’t think that’s an issue.”
Puzder’s personal wealth has also earned scrutiny that has delayed his nomination for several weeks. Federal disclosure forms delivered to the Senate last week show that most of his wealth is tied to CKE Restaurants and that he plans to divest those holdings within six months if he is confirmed to lead the Labor Department.
The White House is standing by Puzder, declaring last week that he would be confirmed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters that he is “enthusiastically” supporting the nominee.
Some business groups are also joining top Republicans in fighting the criticism by urging senators to back the nomination. A coalition of trade groups, including the International Franchise Association, the National Restaurant Association and the National Retail Federation, sent a letter to senators Monday praising Puzder’s “business experience and policy acumen.” Statewide restaurant associations in Maine and Alaska sent separate letters to Collins and Murkowski asking for their support.
If confirmed, Puzder would be the first labor secretary since the Reagan era to come to the role without any public-service experience.
Puzder got his start in the fast-food industry working as a personal attorney for Carl Karcher, the founder of the Carl’s Jr. restaurant chain. He helped Karcher avoid bankruptcy and in 1997 became executive vice president and general counsel for CKE. He then became president and chief executive of CKE in 2000, and he currently oversees 75,000 workers in 3,750 locations.
Puzder has spent much of his career promoting the idea that businesses thrive better when the government doesn’t interfere. In interviews, speeches and op-eds, he has long argued that rules substantially increasing the minimum wage or expanding the number of people who qualify for overtime pay, for example, could drive up the cost of labor and decrease the number of jobs.
In an opinion piece for Forbes, he said that the Obama administration’s overtime rule would force employers to cut costs elsewhere and limit some workers’ schedules. During a Business Insider interview last year, Puzder said that because of rising labor costs, he would consider investing in machines to replace some workers, because “they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”
Labor groups and other critics say they are concerned about Puzder’s pure capitalist mind-set, noting that if confirmed, he may end up tilting the scales in favor of corporations.
But George Thompson, a spokesman for Puzder, said that if confirmed, Puzder would recuse himself from any business related to CKE and would remain impartial when it comes to rulemaking and enforcement.
Opponents also cite stories from employees at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. who allege they have had to work through breaks, not been paid for sick leave or been harassed on the job.
“He’s going to be essentially responsible for enforcing the same laws that he’s been breaking for years,” said Kendall Fells, national organizing director of the Fight for $15, a group advocating for a higher minimum wage that organized lunchtime protests Monday at CKE offices in St. Louis and Anaheim, Calif., as well as restaurant locations throughout the country.
Women’s groups, such as the National Women’s Law Center, and labor advocates question whether he will defend female workers, citing what they say are demeaning ads that feature models eating burgers in skimpy outfits. Puzder, however, has defended the campaign as “American” and characterized it as a strategy for luring “young, hungry guys.”
On Tuesday, the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog, will head to a Missouri state court for a status update on its efforts to unseal Puzder’s divorce records, arguing that the domestic violence allegations “raise serious concerns about his fitness” to be labor secretary.
Yet some businesses and Republicans say they look forward to having someone in the Labor Department who understands that regulations can force businesses to make tough calls.
“We don’t want our workers to feel like they’re not being paid a fair wage, but we want people to understand the ramifications of it,” said Peter Riggs, president of Pita Pit USA, a quick-service sandwich chain with about 600 locations in the United States and Canada. “He understands what we’re going through.”
Puzder’s fate will ultimately depend on whether his opponents can sway more than two Senate Republicans to vote against him.
The Republicans hesitating to publicly support him said they will make up their minds after the hearing.
“No real story here,” said a spokeswoman for Scott, noting that the senator hasn’t been commenting on nominees “until their confirmation hearing,” with the exception of fellow South Carolina Republicans Nikki Haley, nominated to serve as United Nations ambassador, and Rep. Mick Mulvaney, nominated to lead the Office of Management and Budget.
Consistent with his policy on other nominees, “Senator Isakson will make a final decision after Mr. Puzder’s confirmation hearing on Thursday,” a spokeswoman said via email.
Murkowski said she “will be working to learn more about Mr. Puzder leading up to and during the upcoming hearing, as well as through additional one-on-one conversations with him,” a spokeswoman said.
Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.