WASHINGTON—The fast-food executive Andrew F. Puzder withdrew his nomination to be labor secretary on Wednesday, as Republican senators turned sharply against him, the latest defeat for a White House besieged by infighting and struggling for traction even with a Republican-controlled Congress.
The toppling of one of President Donald J. Trump’s Cabinet picks was a victory for Democrats, unions and liberal groups that had been attacking Puzder’s business record and his character since he was chosen last December.
Conservative publications, including National Review and Breitbart, had also expressed resistance, zeroing in on Puzder’s employment of an immigrant who was in the country illegally as his housekeeper. And records from his 1988 divorce, disseminated on Tuesday night by opponents, resurfaced spousal abuse accusations that made some Republican senators uncomfortable.
His ex-wife had recanted those accusations, but senators from both parties privately screened a videotape from The Oprah Winfrey Show that featured her laying out the charges while in disguise.
The opposition from Republicans was broad, and the reasons varied. Among the senators who expressed concerns were John Thune of South Dakota, Rob Portman of Ohio, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Tim Scott of South Carolina—more than enough to scuttle the nomination.
A spokesman for Puzder, George Thompson, said his treatment had been “an unprecedented smear campaign”.
In a statement, Puzder thanked the president and those who supported him for their optimism about the “policies and new thinking” he would have brought to the job. Puzder’s withdrawal came two days after the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn.
Earlier this month, his nominee for Army secretary, the billionaire financier Vincent Viola, also withdrew his name from consideration, saying he could not disentangle his business connections. And his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, was confirmed only after Vice President Mike Pence cast a tiebreaking vote.
The Senate must still vote on the nomination of Rep. Mick Mulvaney, Republican-South Carolina, to be Trump’s budget director, over the loud objection of Sen. John McCain, Republican-Arizona, who took to the Senate floor again on Wednesday afternoon to accuse Mulvaney, a hard-line conservative of being antimilitary.
“This is not personal. This is not political. This is about principle,” McCain said. “This is about my conviction as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee that providing for the common defense is our highest constitutional duty.”
Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, is facing a revolt by EPA employees scrambling to block him. Collins declared her opposition to him on Wednesday.
Republicans blamed Democratic obstruction, not the quality of the president’s choices, for the arduous confirmations process.
“I think when you have to put all this energy into an unreasonable nominations process it takes away the energy that could better be used for other things,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, Republican-Missouri.
Democrats cheered Puzder’s withdrawal as a victory for working Americans. The Labor Department regulates workplace safety, enforces wage and hour laws, maintains unemployment and payroll data, and is generally seen as an advocate for workers.
Puzder, at the helm of his fast-food company, ardently opposed the Affordable Care Act, cast a skeptical eye on minimum wage and overtime rules, and pledged an assault on regulations that he said in his withdrawal statement would “put America’s workers and businesses back on a path to sustainable prosperity.”
Some critics also cast him as a sexist, denouncing fast-food advertisements he championed that featured bikini-clad women eating monstrous hamburgers.
“The simple truth is that, given his relationship to employees at the companies he runs, he was not fit to lead a department responsible for defending workers’ rights,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, Independent-Vermont, who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination last year.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called on Trump to nominate someone who supported the rights of workers rather than suppressed them.
“Puzder should never have even been nominated to lead the Labor Department, and Senate Republicans clearly recognized this, too,” Schumer said. “The fact that someone so antilabor was even nominated shows how far President Trump is from where he campaigned”.
As the chief executive of CKE Restaurants, which owns the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. fast-food chains, Puzder had come under intense criticism from Democrats and liberal groups that accused him of mistreating his workers and supporting automation in the workplace. The intense scrutiny of his personal life compounded his troubles.
His hearing was repeatedly delayed as he sought to extricate himself from his business and investments. Democrats, who organized screenings of the video of his wife detailing her allegations of abuse, were preparing to make his marriage an issue and to question him about his company’s salacious TV ads.
However, as recently as last week he had said through a spokesman that he was “all in” to move forward. Despite the growing backlash, the White House and Republican leaders tried to rally support around him last week, arguing that no nominee was perfect.
“I think Andy Puzder is an outstanding choice,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican-Kentucky, the majority leader, who counted himself a friend of Puzder’s. “We’re always looking for nominees who have never made a mistake. Frequently it’s impossible to find nominees who have never made a mistake.”
Republicans quietly acknowledged the setback as they saluted Puzder. “Andy Puzder has the experience and ability to make an excellent labor secretary, but I respect his decision,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican-Tennessee, chairman of the labor committee. Trump ignored questions about Puzder after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Wednesday afternoon, but he will be under pressure to quickly find a replacement.