BY JASON DICK AND BRIDGET BOWMAN
The withdrawal of Andrew Puzder’s nomination to be Labor secretary represents a milestone in the nascent Trump administration: the first time congressional Republicans played a significant part in spiking a Donald Trump Cabinet pick.
The nomination of the CEO of CKE Restaurants, which runs the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains, had been plagued by scandal, including revelations he had employed an undocumented immigrant as a housekeeper and failed to pay taxes on her, as well as the fallout from a 1987 divorce that brought up allegations of domestic violence against him.
His confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee was delayed multiple times, his completion of vetting paperwork dragged on, and word got out that he was testy about being questioned about his finances and personal life.
Reports also started surfacing early this week that as many as four Republicans might oppose him. With all Democrats opposed, that wasn’t enough for majority support. When Senate leadership aides tried to swat those reports down, the numbers kept growing, all with a Thursday confirmation hearing staring them in the face.
By the time Puzder pulled the plug, the floor of Republicans was six, and the ceiling was as high as 12. Wednesday afternoon, as rumors swirled and the White House sought to lock the press out of contact with communications staff, Puzder sent out a statement removing his name from consideration.
“After careful consideration and discussions with my family, I am withdrawing my nomination for secretary of Labor. 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,” the statement said.
Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins said he made the right decision.
“There were so many questions surrounding his nomination that I believe the hearing [Thursday] would have been extremely difficult for him,” she said. “And there would have been questions that, even if he was able to be confirmed, would have made it difficult for him to be an effective secretary of the Department of Labor.”
Collins said Puzder’s position on increasing the minimum wage and improving job training programs would have been beneficial, “but in the end there were just too many questions that had arisen about his employment, as a business person, about the employment of an undocumented housekeeper whom he paid on cash over a period of years, and other issues that made it very difficult for him to proceed.”
Collins said she had also planned to press Puzder on labor law violations at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. franchises.
“You want the person who would be the secretary of Labor to have a very good record when it comes to following the laws that he would be in charge of enforcing,” she said.
The Maine senator said she had relayed her concerns to GOP leadership, as did other Republicans, such as Tim Scott of South Carolina.
“They asked me to withhold making a decision until the hearing, which I readily agreed to, because unless I know the person personally, that’s what I always do,” Collins said.
Meanwhile, as the Puzder news broke, the door to the press office behind the podium in the White House briefing room was locked.
The press office staff declined to comment, but more than 20 reporters crowded into a tight hallway outside Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s office. The crowd of scribes grew to three wide before some opted to return to other tasks.
At one point, Spicer exited via a rear door and headed downstairs. He suggested he would speak to reporters upon his return; once he did, he allowed in one reporter who had a question about Israel before the entire throng filed in.
“He withdrew,” Spicer told reporters in his office.
He said a statement from the president would be coming soon. But Spicer had to quickly reverse himself. At the end of the gaggle with reporters, an aide slipped him a note, and he said the president would not, after all, be issuing a written statement or speaking about Puzder.
Back at the Capitol, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said, “I’ve talked to my colleagues about their concerns. I like Andy Puzder a lot. He’s a very capable man. I think he would be a very good secretary of Labor.”
However, Rubio said he became “concerned about the issues that have arisen in the last week or so. Obviously, we’re aware of some of the spousal abuse issues, which are serious … and then the issue regarding the household employee and not paying taxes up until recently. So these are two very serious issues that he was going to get asked about and pressed about. So while I’ve expressed support for him, I was going to re-evaluate my support for his nomination after [Thursday’s] hearing.”
Rubio said he had not relayed those concerns to GOP leadership.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he was not surprised at Puzder’s withdrawal.
“The question at the outset has been why would he want this job, given he’s been absolutely hostile to protecting working people, particularly women, from abuses and illegal practices in the workplace,” Blumenthal said. “He’s refused to respect and abide [by] the very laws that he would be enforcing.”
Blumenthal said the fact that Puzder is the first of Trump’s nominees to withdraw due to lack of GOP support showed that “maybe our Republican colleagues have passed the tolerance point for defending nominees who lack experience and commitment to the agencies they’re nominated to lead.”
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the HELP Committee, crowed in a statement that “workers and families across the country spoke up loud and clear that they want a true champion for all workers in the Labor Department, I was proud to make sure they had a voice in the Senate, and we will keep fighting.”
In the end, even his supporters could barely muster much enthusiasm.
“Andy Puzder has the experience and ability to make an excellent Labor secretary, but I respect his decision,” HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said in a statement. “He understands the difficulties American workers face in a rapidly changing workforce and I look forward to continuing to hear his insights.”
John T. Bennett and Emily Wilkins contributed to this report.