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Trump names Alexander Acosta as new pick for labor secretary

Former U.S. attorney Alexander Acosta was confirmed on April 27 to lead the Labor Department. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

A day after the dramatic exit of one of his Cabinet nominees, President Trump on Thursday named former U.S. attorney Alexander Acosta as his next pick for labor secretary.

Acosta served as an assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President George W. Bush and is a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He also previously served on the National Labor Relations Board and is now the dean of the law school at Florida International University. Acosta also served as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., when he was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

“He has had a tremendous career,” Trump said Thursday, adding that Acosta had “been through Senate confirmation three times.”

Acosta earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard College and received a law degree from Harvard Law School. He previously worked at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

If confirmed, the Cuban American would be the first Hispanic member of Trump’s Cabinet.

Trump’s announcement came on a day when senators were supposed to be grilling his first choice for the job, fast-food chief executive Andrew Puzder. The nominee withdrew his bid Wednesday amid wavering Republican support and scrutiny of his personal life, including a rancorous divorce more than 25 years ago that included domestic-violence allegations that his ex-wife later retracted.

While the executive faced staunch opposition from Democrats and labor groups because of his opposition to wage and labor regulations, it was his support of an overhaul of immigration law and the revelation that he once hired an undocumented immigrant in his home that ultimately did him in.

Acosta received early support from some top Republicans. “He has an impressive work and academic background,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in statement.

However, some of Acosta’s views may be at odds with Trump’s push to reduce regulations and rulemaking by agencies. In 2010, Acosta wrote an article for the Florida International University Law Review advocating that the National Labor Relations Board shift from a “pre-World War II quasi-judicial administrative agency model” to one in which it would issue rules. “Rulemaking is a better, more democratic, more stable, more transparent, and more modern path for quasi-legislative enactments,” he wrote.

Unlike Puzder, Acosta would come to the role with some public service experience. Unions and labor groups, who had been concerned that Puzder would put corporate interest before those of workers, cautiously applauded Trump’s move Thursday.

“Working people changed the game on this nomination,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement. “In one day, we’ve gone from a fast-food CEO who routinely violates labor law to a public servant with experience enforcing it.”

But Trumka, consumer advocates and Democrats said that they still plan to vet Acosta thoroughly.

“People across the country have sent a very clear message that they want a true champion for workers as secretary of labor, one who will work for them, not just those at the top,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the HELP committee, said in a statement, adding that she has “some initial concerns about his record” that she would be looking into, without specifying what those concerns were.

On Thursday, a civil rights group pointed to a controversy Acosta faced while he was at the Justice Department. An investigation from the department’s Office of Inspector General concluded that Acosta “did not sufficiently supervise” a former senior division official who favored hiring people with “conservative political or ideological affiliations” over those with more civil rights experience. “It is hard to believe that Mr. Acosta would now be nominated to lead a federal agency tasked with promoting lawful hiring practices and safe workplaces,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Acosta may also face questions about a high-profile case he oversaw as a U.S. attorney in South Florida. In 2008, federal prosecutors negotiated what some critics categorized as a sweetheart plea deal for a billionaire hedge fund manager accused of having sex with underage girls.

Jeffrey Epstein avoided federal charges and served 13 months in county jail after he pleaded guilty to state charges of soliciting prostitution, an outcome that was highly criticized by the alleged victims. Years later, according to a 2011 letter posted online by the Daily Beast, Acosta said the prosecution faced a “year-long assault” from the defense team. “Some may feel that the prosecution should have been tougher,” he wrote, adding that more physical evidence had been discovered since the deal. “Had these additional statements and evidence been known, the outcome may have been different,” he said in the letter. “But they were not known to us at the time.”

Acosta’s confirmation hearing will be scheduled after the Senate receives his required paperwork, said Alexander, whose committee will oversee the hearing.

John Wagner and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.