President Trump said Thursday that he would nominate former Justice Department official R. Alexander Acosta as Labor secretary, opting for a more conventional choice after the withdrawal of his first pick, outspoken Southern California fast-food executive Andy Puzder.
If confirmed, Acosta would be the only Latino in Trump’s Cabinet.
“I think he’ll be a tremendous secretary of Labor,” Trump said in announcing the nomination at a White House news conference.
After the problems faced by Puzder, a flamboyant businessman whose comments on immigration, restaurant automation and other issues inflamed conservatives and liberals, Trump turned to a nominee with a long government history, said Gary Chaison, a labor relations expert,
“I think he’s going to be much more of a traditionalist, low-profile administrator,” Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said of Acosta. “He’s got a perfect background for this.”
The Miami native and son of Cuban immigrants was a member of the National Labor Relations Board from 2002 to 2003. He began his legal career specializing in employment and labor issues in the Washington, D.C., office of the Kirkland & Ellis law firm.
He went on to serve as assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under former President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2005. Acosta was the first Latino to serve as an assistant attorney general.
He then became U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, holding the job until 2009. Among his most high-profile cases was the prosecution of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff on conspiracy and wire fraud charges. Abramoff pleaded guilty and served 43 months of a five-year, 10-month sentence.
Since 2009, Acosta has been dean of the law school at Florida International University in Miami.
“He has had a tremendous career,” Trump said, noting that Acosta has been confirmed by the Senate three times before.
In a brief written statement, Acosta said he was “eager to work tirelessly on behalf of the American worker.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which will consider Acosta’s nomination, praised the pick and promised to schedule a confirmation hearing promptly.
“Mr. Acosta’s nomination is off to a good start because he’s already been confirmed by the Senate three times,” Alexander said. “He has an impressive work and academic background.”
A quick confirmation would be a sharp contrast with Puzder, chief executive of Carpinteria, Calif.-based CKE Restaurants Inc., parent company of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains. He withdrew abruptly Wednesday after several Republicans opposed him because of a series of controversies, including decades-old allegations of spousal abuse and an admission that he had for years employed a housekeeper who was in the United States illegally.
Puzder’s views on immigration also were a major problem with some Senate Republicans.
He was sharply criticized by conservative outlets Breitbart News and the National Review for advocating in the past for providing legal status — but not citizenship — to the millions of immigrants in the country illegally. Those views contrasted with Trump’s hard-line immigration stance.
Puzder had said massive deportation was not a practical option and that the Republican resistance to broad-based reform was hurting the party. In a 2013 Politico opinion column, Puzder wrote “the fact is that there are jobs in this country that U.S. citizens, for whatever reason, are reluctant or unwilling to perform. We need realistic and enforceable reform.”
Acosta hasn’t spoken publicly nearly as much on immigration. But at a 2012 Hispanic Leadership Network Conference, Acosta urged the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
He said that immigrants in the country illegally provide workers for construction and agricultural jobs.
“You cannot address immigration without answering, what you do with the individuals that are already in the United States?” Acosta said according to a video of the event on C-Span.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington that advocates for lower immigration levels, said Acosta’s comments raised concerns.
“That’s bad,” Krikorian said. “Obviously his views on immigration are contrary to those of the administration.”
But Krikorian said Acosta seemed “a little less bad” on the issue than Puzder because immigration did not appear to be as high a priority.
“Puzder was out there lobbying” for reform that would provide legal status to immigrants in the country illegally, Krikorian said. Also, as a former prosecutor, Acosta is “likely to be a little more serious about compliance to the law,” Krikorian said.
The Labor Department oversees workplace immigration issues, including requirements for visa holders and guest workers.
If confirmed by the Senate, Acosta would lead a department that also includes the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. and Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks and reports on job growth, wages and unemployment benefits.
Under the Obama administration, the Labor Department was aggressive about protecting workers through new rules and enforcement actions. The Trump administration is expected to take a much different approach.
In January, the administration froze a regulation that would have extended overtime pay to 4 million more workers. This month, Trump issued a memo to the acting Labor secretary calling for a review of a pending rule affecting retirement advisors. Known as the fiduciary rule, it requires investment brokers who handle retirement funds to put their clients' interests ahead of other factors, such as their own compensation or company profits.
Republicans and key players in the financial industry have opposed the rule, saying it would drive up the cost of investments by forcing asset management firms to spend money on implementation and make it more difficult for average Americans to get retirement advice.
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the Senate needed “to conduct a thorough review” of Acosta after Puzder’s failed nomination.
“Our next secretary of Labor must fully respect our laws designed to protect American workers,” Henderson said.
Democrats, unions, workers’ rights advocates and civil rights groups strongly opposed Puzder’s nomination because of labor law violations at his restaurants as well as opposition to a significant increase in the minimum wage and other regulations.
One issue from Acosta’s past that Democrats could jump on is a voting rights case in Ohio shortly before the 2004 presidential election. As assistant attorney general, Acosta filed a brief that supported the rights of citizens to challenge the eligibility of voters.
A civil rights lawyer representing the plaintiffs said at the time "the letter was highly irregular." Bush narrowly won the state, which determined the outcome of his race with Democrat John Kerry.
1:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details and analysis and comments from Gary Chaison of Clark University and Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.
This article originally was published at 10:45 a.m.