By Burgess Everett and Marianne LeVine
Andrew Puzder has faced allegations of beating his wife, apprenticed to a notorious mob lawyer early in his career, and just admitted to hiring an undocumented immigrant and failing to pay taxes on her employment.
Yet somehow, Donald Trump’s Labor secretary nominee is still standing.
Republican leaders are intent on pushing the fast-food executive through, and are preparing finally to schedule his confirmation hearing after four delays related to problems with his ethics paperwork. But a number of GOP senators said that before pressing forward, they want to know more about the latest revelation that Puzder for five years employed — he says unknowingly — an undocumented immigrant.
GOP Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, who just voted against Betsy DeVos for education secretary, each said they need more information and time to review Puzder’s nomination. And Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) who has signaled support for Puzder in the past, says he is undecided and is “considering all the factors.”
“You’ve got to consider everything in context of the total package, not just one thing,” Isakson said. On the immigration issue, he said: “That’s something you’ve got to consider. I don’t want to make a declaration until I’ve made a decision.”
Murkowski, Collins and Isakson all sit on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which will hold Puzder’s confirmation hearing. If all Democrats vote against Puzder, he could afford to lose only two Republican votes and still win confirmation. Democrats are largely lining up against confirmation.
The GOP has already faced allega`tions of unpaid taxes related to Office of Management and Budget hopeful Mick Mulvaney, and Commerce Department nominee Wilbur Ross fired an undocumented immigrant employee prior to his confirmation hearing. During the Obama administration, former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary over thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes.
Political scandals surrounding the employment of undocumented domestic employees, or failure to pay employment taxes on household workers, date to the Clinton administration. In 1993, these issues sank two consecutive nominees for attorney general — Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood — in what became known as Nannygate.
When George W. Bush was president, Linda Chavez withdrew her nomination for Labor secretary after it was revealed she'd given money to an undocumented immigrant (though Chavez said she had not employed that person).
Asked whether there was any point at which a Trump nominee could have too much baggage to win confirmation, HELP Committee member Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said, “Sure.” But he couldn’t say whether Puzder has reached that point.
“We’ll see what happens,” Scott said. “I need to do more research.”
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), said he is prepared to vote for Puzder “unless there’s something else new that I learn.” A Democratic aide said more negative stories about Puzder are likely to surface ahead of his confirmation hearing.
Republican aides said they’re being careful not to schedule Puzder’s hearing before all his paperwork is in, hoping to avoid the row over DeVos that stemmed from moving forward with her nomination before all of her documentation had arrived. According to George Thompson, a spokesman for Puzder, the delay was prompted by Puzder’s need to divest financial holdings that the Office of Government Ethics judged a conflict of interest. Puzder is chairman of CKE Restaurants, which owns Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., and the fast-food industry is a top enforcement target of the Labor Department.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the HELP Committee, is standing by Puzder. “He’s a very talented individual,” he said. “For me, [the immigrant issue] doesn’t disqualify him from being a Cabinet member. He discovered the mistake, he took responsibility for the mistake, he corrected the mistake, and he reported the mistake. That’s all you can do.”
According to Thompson, Puzder terminated the housekeeper “about five years ago” on learning of her undocumented status “and offered to help get her legal status.” But The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Puzder didn’t pay back employment taxes on the housekeeper until after his nomination.
Puzder’s allies in the business lobby apparently are standing by him. “I do not think his nomination is in trouble,” said Steve Danon, senior vice president of communications at the National Restaurant Association. Regarding the domestic-abuse allegations, Danon said, “His wife has recanted this on a number of occasions. That was a personal issue during an ugly divorce.”
Puzder’s ex-wife Lisa Fierstein, for whom Thompson is also acting as spokesman, retracted her allegations of physical abuse initially as part of a 1990 child-custody agreement. She has repeated variations on that retraction many times, most recently in a letter to the Senate HELP Committee.
In the HELP Committee letter, Fierstein addressed for the first time publicly her decision, sometime around 1990, to air her allegations against Puzder on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” as first reported last month by Politico. “I was hesitant,” Fierstein said, “but encouraged by friends and became caught up in the notion of a free trip to Chicago and being a champion of women and women’s issues. I regret my decision to appear on that show.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it “continues to be supportive of the nomination.”
But a prominent business lobbyist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “Based on past standards, he has a high hill to climb. … How much more can one take and still survive?”
Puzder's most vigorous opposition is from the left, which criticizes him for, among other things, tolerating frequent labor law violations at franchisee restaurants; televising raunchy advertisements featuring scantily clad models mimicking sexual arousal while eating Carl's Jr. burgers; and opposing expanded overtime coverage or any significant increase in the minimum wage.
Read more from Politico.