WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking a surer bet to fill out his Cabinet, President Donald Trump on Thursday moved quickly to name law school dean Alexander Acosta as his new choice for labor secretary — a day after Andrew Puzder abruptly withdrew from consideration.
If confirmed by the Senate, Acosta would be the first Hispanic member of Trump’s Cabinet.
Trump and key Republicans highlighted a key detail in Acosta’s resume: He has won unanimous Senate confirmation three times — to a seat on the National Labor Relations Board, as the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and as U.S. attorney in Miami.
“He did very, very well,” Trump, said in a brief statement to start a White House press conference that was dominated by other challenges facing the new administration. Acosta did not appear with him.
Almost immediately, Acosta’s Senate prospects looked better than Puzder’s had after months of attacks on his personal life, statements and career as a fast-food CEO.
“Mr. Acosta’s nomination is off to a good start because he’s already been confirmed by the Senate three times,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate panel that will hold Acosta’s confirmation hearing.
Leading Democrats and their allies vowed to hold Acosta “accountable” as the head of an agency charged with enforcing worker protections.
But their reactions were muted compared to the scathing response to Puzder’s nomination in December, when his opponents paraded out worker after worker who complained of shoddy treatment at Puzder’s company’s restaurants, which include Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. And they questioned how well Puzder could advocate for workers after a career atop CKE Restaurants Inc.
Puzder withdrew his nomination Wednesday after several Republicans indicated they would not support him, in part over his past employment of a housekeeper not authorized to work in the U.S. Puzder did not pay the related taxes for five years after he fired the worker, only doing so after he was nominated on Dec. 9.
“Unlike Andy Puzder, Alexander Acosta’s nomination deserves serious consideration,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka 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.”
Sen. Patty Murray, the leading Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, made a passing reference in her statement to having “some initial concerns about his record,” but did not name them.
An assortment of Hispanic advocacy groups praised the nomination, including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The Florida International University law school, where Acosta is dean, said he is 48. The Hispanic National Bar Association and others described Acosta as the son of Cuban immigrants.
Other groups pointed out that Acosta was head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division when the agency came under fire for applying political considerations to some hiring decisions. The agency’s inspector general report said Acosta “did not sufficiently supervise” an employee to whom he had delegated hiring duties.
“This egregious conduct played out under Mr. Acosta’s watch and undermined the integrity of the Civil Rights Division,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. “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.”
The Harvard-trained Miami native, now dean of the Florida International University law school, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“He reminds me of one of those baseball players who can do everything,” Alito said as he swore in Acosta in 2006 as South Florida’s top federal prosecutor.
While Acosta was South Florida’s top prosecutor, his office won the conviction of purported “dirty bomb” suspect and al-Qaida operative Jose Padilla on terrorism support charges; convicted former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and a partner on fraud charges involving a gambling fleet purchase; obtained guilty pleas from brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez-Orejuela for operating Colombia’s Cali cocaine cartel; and prosecuted Swiss bank UBS for allowing U.S. taxpayers to hide money overseas, resulting in the bank paying a $780 million fine and turning over names of secret account holders to the U.S.
One top Miami defense lawyer, David O. Markus, who represented one of the Cali cartel brothers, tweeted out Thursday that Acosta was a great choice.
“Smart, ethical and a really good guy,” Markus wrote.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Washington and Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.