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Why Trump’s Labor Nominee Failed

President Trump’s choice to run the Labor Department, fast food CEO Andy Puzder, withdrew his nomination on Wednesday after it became clear that the Senate was unlikely to confirm him for the job.

Puzder’s nomination had been in trouble for a while. The CEO of the company that runs the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. burger chains, Puzder faced immediate opposition from labor groups, especially the “Fight for $15” minimum-wage movement, which has gained strength in recent years. But he also drew skepticism from some of Trump’s own supporters over his record on immigration and other issues. And his confirmation hearings were repeatedly delayed as he sought to sell off his restaurant holdings and untangle potential conflicts of interest. His most recent hearing date had been set for Thursday.

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In a one-paragraph statement announcing his decision, Puzder thanked Trump for the opportunity but gave no reason for his withdrawal.

Trump’s Cabinet nominees have faced unprecedented opposition in the Senate, but until now, they had all managed to get through. (Several nominees are still awaiting votes.) Puzder, like some of Trump’s other nominees, faced near-unanimous opposition from Democrats. But what doomed him were defections among Republicans: CNN on Wednesday reported that at least four and as many as 12 Republican senators were planning to vote against Puzder’s nomination. In a narrowly divided Senate, that was too much to overcome — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos got just two “no” votes from Republicans and still needed Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 tie in order to be confirmed.

Why did Puzder fail where other controversial nominees succeeded? There is probably no single reason. He, like DeVos, faced well-organized opposition from liberal groups. Unlike DeVos, he was an awkward ideological fit for Trump’s blue-collar base of support. And in recent weeks he has faced a series of scandals or potential scandals: the revelation that he once employed an undocumented immigrant as a domestic worker; claims (since rescinded) of assault by his ex-wife; and accusations of labor violations at his restaurants. Puzder might have survived any one of those challenges; he couldn’t survive them all.

Here are a few more takeaways from Puzder’s downfall:

This isn’t that unusual

Democrats are already crowing over Puzder’s withdrawal as another sign the Trump administration is in disarray, but it’s not unusual for a president to have at least one Cabinet nominee withdraw or be voted down. Every president since George H.W. Bush has had at least one of his initial Cabinet nominees not be confirmed. Three of former President Barack Obama’s nominees withdrew their names from consideration.

Still, it’s possible that Trump’s early-term struggles — including the resignation this week of National Security Adviser Mike Flynn after just 24 days on the job — could have made it harder for him to help Puzder once his nomination ran into trouble. When DeVos’s nomination looked like it was in jeopardy earlier this month, the White House and its backers were able to shore up support among Republicans and push her confirmation through. They either couldn’t or wouldn’t do the same with Puzder this week.

A victory for Fight for $15

When Trump announced Puzder’s nomination in December, “Fight for $15” leapt into action. The union-backed, minimum-wage movement organized rallies at Puzder’s restaurants, dug into his business record and deluged reporters with press releases. The group claimed victory Wednesday: “Meet the coalition that beat Puzder,” one press release blared.

How much credit does the movement deserve? It’s a safe bet that Fight for $15 and its backers were going to oppose anyone Trump nominated for labor secretary, and will probably oppose whoever he nominates in Puzder’s place as well. And it’s doubtful that the movement had much sway with the Republican senators who ultimately turned the tide against Puzder.

But it’s hard to imagine a better foil for the movement than a fast-food CEO who had spoken out against raising the minimum wage, complained about the Affordable Care Act and threatened to replace workers with robots. And Puzder gave the groups plenty of other ammunition: Labor advocates highlighted examples of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants (most of them owned by franchisees, not CKE Restaurants, the corporate parent run by Puzder) failing to pay their employees what the law required. Franchised restaurants also had a history of disregarding other labor laws and regulations that Puzder would have been in charge of enforcing as labor secretary. In January, a group associated with the minimum-wage movement helped workers file 39 new wage theft and sexual harassment complaints against Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. franchisees.

This much is certain: The existence of Fight for $15 ensured that Puzder would face well-organized opposition from day one, something that hasn’t been the case for all Trump’s nominees.

An awkward fit for Trump

In some ways, Puzder was a natural fit for Trump’s administration: Like other Cabinet nominees, and like Trump himself, he is a wealthy, media-savvy businessman without government experience. But in other ways he was a less obvious choice.

In particular, Puzder’s public positions on immigration were never entirely in line with Trump’s “America First” agenda. In 2013, Puzder encouraged Congress to pass legislation to create a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants and said he had “firsthand knowledge” of the significant role immigrants play in contributing to U.S. businesses. The restaurant industry relies heavily on immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, for employees; Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. franchisees reportedly had to fire 1,200 undocumented workers in 2014 following a government immigration audit. The National Review, an influential conservative publication, on Wednesday came out against Puzder’s confirmation because of his stance on immigration.

Scandals didn’t help

Rumors of Puzder’s possible withdrawal began circulating even before Trump’s inauguration. But two recent revelations further undermined his chances.

First, Puzder revealed last week that he had once employed an undocumented housekeeper — more or less the same “nanny problem” that has felled previous nominees, including Zoe Baird (Bill Clinton’s first nominee for attorney general) and Linda Chavez (George W. Bush’s nominee for labor secretary).1 Another Trump nominee, prospective Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross Jr., appears likely to be confirmed despite having a similar issue. But Ross doesn’t have Puzder’s history of favoring immigration reform. North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis cited Puzder’s undocumented worker as a top reason to withhold support for his nomination.

The second problem for Puzder were the allegations by his ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, that he abused her during their marriage. While Fierstein later retracted the claims and defended her former husband to senators, there is tape of her making the charges on an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” That tape, if it became public, could have been played many times in 2018 campaigns against Republicans who voted for Puzder. The issue could have posed a particular problem for Republicans given that Trump, too, has been accused of assault, and given that Trump continues to poll poorly among women.

Does it matter?

Puzder’s withdrawal isn’t likely to lead to a significant change in direction for the administration’s labor policy — Trump isn’t likely to replace him with a union organizer or a minimum-wage activist, for example. But the decision could make a difference in subtler ways. Trump’s eventual labor secretary, for example, will have to decide what to do about Obama’s decision late in his term to extend overtime pay to millions more workers. (That decision is currently on hold after it was blocked by a federal judge.) He or she will face a similar decision about the so-called fiduciary rule, another late-term Obama decision that would change how financial advisers represent their clients. And the labor secretary can help determine how aggressively the department enforces rules on pay, work standards, worker safety and other issues.

Trump’s choice to replace Puzder, in other words, could have at least some leeway to decide the administration’s approach to labor issues. Even on the minimum wage, Trump’s pick may have some flexibility: Trump took a variety of different positions on the issue during the campaign and at times seemed open to raising the minimum wage, a position that is generally popular among Republican voters.

Footnotes

  1. Chavez withdrew after revealing she previously housed an immigrant seeking refuge from Guatemala in the early 1990’s. She never employed the woman but did give her money and claimed she wasn’t fully aware of the woman’s illegal status.

Ben Casselman is a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Kathryn Casteel is FiveThirtyEight’s economics and policy intern.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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