Puzder, chief executive of Carpinteria-based CKE Restaurants Inc., the parent company of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains, abruptly withdrew just a day before he was to face a Senate confirmation hearing.
He had faced aggressive attacks in recent weeks by Democrats, unions, workers’ rights advocates and fast-food employees over labor law violations at his company’s restaurants and his opposition to a significant increase in the federal minimum wage.
But his decision to pull out was triggered by concerns from a growing number of Senate Republicans about decades-old allegations of spousal abuse and an admission that he had employed a housekeeper who was in the U.S. illegally.
“After careful consideration and discussions with my family, I am withdrawing my nomination for secretary of Labor,” Puzder said in a statement emailed by his spokesman. “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.”
“While I won't be serving in the administration, I fully support the president and his highly qualified team,” Puzder said.
Democrats rejoiced as they succeeded in helping knock out one of Trump’s Cabinet nominees.
“His withdrawal from consideration is good news for hardworking Americans across the country,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “It's time for President Trump to stop looking out for his billionaire buddies and name a secretary of Labor who will stand up for workers."
The collapse of Puzder’s nomination adds to what was already the toughest week of Trump’s young presidency. After seeing his controversial travel ban blocked by federal courts last week, Trump lost one of his early key supporters with the forced resignation Monday night of Michael Flynn. The former national security advisor was pushed out over false statements he had made about his December contacts with a Russian diplomat.
Waning GOP support for Puzder was also a sign that Republicans on Capitol Hill — who had previously been reluctant to confront Trump over policy or Cabinet appointments — are feeling emboldened to stand up to the new president. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was confirmed last week thanks only to a tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence after two Republicans voted against her.
White House officials appear to have concluded that it was not worth their political capital to fight for Puzder's nomination. Trump issued no statement Wednesday regarding Puzder’s decision.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer blamed Senate Democrats for delaying and politicizing the confirmation process. “It's just ridiculous. He was not given a hearing,” he said.
Puzder, 66, helped CKE Restaurants overcome severe financial difficulties in the 1990s before becoming chief executive in 2000. He raised the profile of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s with ads featuring scantily clad women eating oversized hamburgers.
Puzder also was an outspoken opponent of increased government regulation, criticizing the Affordable Care Act and the Obama administration’s attempt to expand the number of workers eligible for overtime pay.
Just as with his burger ads, Puzder often opted to be provocative, including musing about the benefits of increased automation in his restaurants.
In an interview last year with Fortune magazine, he noted that machines are "always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”
Democrats targeted Puzder — who had served as an economic advisor to Trump’s campaign — for defeat. And opponents got extra time to build the case after several delays in his confirmation hearing as senators awaited his ethics and financial disclosure forms.
Last week, Puzder admitted that he had employed a housekeeper for years who was in the U.S. illegally. Puzder paid back taxes related to the employee only after being selected by Trump in early December.
Puzder also dealt with the fallout from his divorce in the 1980s. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and other Republicans expressed concern over a 1990 episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in which Puzder's ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, made allegations of abuse.
Last month Fierstein wrote to the leaders of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee saying she had retracted those accusations. She called Puzder "a good, loving, kind man."
But by Wednesday, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and John Thune (R-S.D.) had all expressed reservations.
In addition to his personal issues, Puzder drew resistance from some on the right for views he once expressed in support of employing immigrant labor. That alarmed some conservative immigration groups that advocate limiting the influx of foreign workers so they won’t compete with Americans for jobs.
In an editorial Wednesday morning, the conservative National Review came out against Puzder’s nomination, saying he “has been a reliable font of cliches in favor of higher levels of legal immigration.”
“We have our disagreements with President Trump’s economics, but the emphasis on the interests of lower-income workers who are in competition with immigrant labor is important,” the editorial said. “Trump should find a Labor secretary who agrees with it and can be trusted to try to vigorously effect policies reflecting it.”
Speculation swirled in recent days that Puzder would drop out rather than face a grueling fight, but he initially vowed through a spokesman that he was “all in.” By Wednesday, those close to him were publicly acknowledging he had grown weary of the negative publicity and criticism.
Senior Senate Republican leaders informed the White House on Wednesday that Puzder did not have the votes, according to a GOP aide granted anonymity to discuss the private talks.
The White House has not identified a replacement. One candidate could be Peter Kirsanow, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board with whom Trump met in November when he was considering Cabinet choices.
Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.
Follow @JimPuzzanghera on Twitter
3:25 p.m.: This story was updated with reaction and background.
This story was originally published at 12:55 p.m.