WASHINGTON — The day after his first choice withdrew, President Trump on Thursday nominated Alexander Acosta, the dean of the Florida International University law school, to become his new Labor secretary.
“I think he’ll make a tremendous secretary of Labor,” Trump said at a White House news conference.
Acosta, a Miami native who is Cuban-American, did not attend the East Room event. If confirmed, he would be the first Latino in Trump’s cabinet.
Acosta, 48, previously served as a member of the National Labor Relations Board and as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
Trump’s appointment of Acosta followed the abrupt exit of his first Labor nominee, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder, who withdrew his name from consideration on Wednesday after his support among Republican senators collapsed because of questions about his professional and personal background. Senate GOP leaders said it had become clear that Puzder did not have the votes needed to win confirmation.
On Capitol Hill, the initial reaction to Trump’s appointment of Acosta was positive among Republicans.
“Mr. Acosta’s nomination is off to a good start because he’s already been confirmed by the Senate three times,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the committee that will be responsible for holding Acosta’s confirmation hearing.
Acosta “has an impressive work and academic background,” said Alexander, adding that the committee would promptly schedule the nominee’s hearing as soon as his paperwork arrives in the Senate.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, said he knows Acosta well and that “he is a phenomenal choice to lead the Department of Labor.”
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the committee that will hold Acosta’s confirmation hearing, said she had some initial concerns about Acosta’s record, but she did not specify what those concerns are.
“Based on what we’ve seen in past nominees from President Trump, I will continue to insist on a rigorous and thorough vetting process in which senators get the information we need and have all reasonable questions answered,” Murray said.
The National Employment Law Project, one of the groups that led the opposition to Puzder, withheld immediate judgment on Acosta.
“President Trump’s latest nominee for U.S. labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, deserves a thorough vetting on the issues that matter most to America’s workers,” said Christine Owens, the group’s executive director. “We’ll make sure he gets that vetting.”’
For Acosta’s nomination to succeed, “he must convince Americans that he is ready to uphold the Labor Department’s role in protecting workers and enforcing minimum wage, overtime, health and safety, and other workplace protections,” Owens said.
Acosta, who goes by Alex, is a first-generation university graduate and lawyer who earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard College and his law degree from Harvard Law School, according to his official biography at Florida International.
Acosta served as a law clerk for Samuel Alito Jr., who at the time was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and later became a Supreme Court justice. Acosta ran the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Civil Rights under George W. Bush from 2003 to 2005, where he was the first Latino to hold the rank of assistant attorney general.
He later served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. In that job, he prosecuted a number of high-profile cases, including disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff for fraud.
“He definitely was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever worked with,” said Jeffrey Sloman, a former prosecutor who worked as Acosta’s first assistant in the U.S. attorney’s office.
Acosta “just had a really good vision for the office and was very creative, not only on the prosecution side but also managing the office and the budget of the office,” Sloman said.
Acosta was well-liked by defense attorneys and others in South Florida’s legal community, Sloman said, and “I think he’ll get broad support” in the Senate.