Abuse Claims Against Andrew Puzder: The 800-Pound Elephant in a Room Full of Elephants

Senators were reluctant to say anything publicly about the domestic abuse allegations against Trump’s labor secretary pick, Andrew Puzder. Turns out, nothing needed to be said.

Tom Williams/Getty,Bloomberg

After a half-dozen delays in as many weeks, President Trump’s Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder was finally about to face his Senate committee hearing. That is, until he suddenly withdrew his name from consideration just this afternoon. “He’s very tired of the abuse,” a source told CBS News’ Major Garrett, sans irony.

Seems that lots of people in Washington were also tired of “the abuse.” Of course, nobody came out and said much about it; instead, Puzder’s disturbing history of alleged domestic violence sat there, the 800-lb. elephant in the room. Everything orbited around it, everybody registered it, people took great pains to avoid saying anything about it. But would there come a point when something must be said about it? If so, who would be the senator to break ranks and drop the a-bomb? How dirty would Democrats play to eke out one victory in a month full of losses?

Turns out, nobody had to say anything. Domestic violence accusations are a bridge too far. Even the legislative body that confirmed Betsy DeVos, a woman who had never attended a public school, to lead public schooling found the allegations disqualifying. If there’s nothing else to celebrate in 2017, women can celebrate that.

The allegations against Puzder come from depositions from 1986, when both Puzder and his then-wife Lisa stated that the police were summoned to their home more than once in response to domestic altercations. According to a Riverfront Times piece, Lisa stated that Puzder had choked her, pushed her to the floor, dragged her by the arm, threw her against a wall, and kicked her in the back. They eventually agreed to an arrangement where Puzder was not allowed to enter the second and third floors of their shared home. In the other incident, Puzder allegedly punched Lisa after dining out at a restaurant. Lisa’s attorney Daniel Sokol told the Riverfront Times that he had copies of medical reports that backed up Lisa’s claims.

Puzder denied the abuse, and later, during the couple’s divorce proceedings, Lisa recanted as part of a custody agreement. But the allegations resurfaced in 1989, when then-Missouri Governor John Ashcroft tapped Puzder to serve on the state’s anti-abortion task force. At the time, Puzder denied the allegations, telling the Riverfront Times in a way that seems pretty on-brand, “If you're trying to smear me by raising the fact that my ex-wife made some charges against me, you're making a big mistake. It would not be good journalistic practice to publish this.”

Now, more than 25 years later, the recanted accusations have surfaced again, thanks, in part, to Oprah Winfrey. Back in January, rumors circulated that several senators had seen tape of an episode of Winfrey’s talk show on which Lisa had appeared. In the 1990 episode, Winfrey spoke with “high-class” women who experienced domestic violence. Tape of the episode is difficult to come by now, but not for Oprah, and not for the senators whose Puzder vote Winfrey hoped to influence.

Meanwhile, an advocacy group called the Center for Accountability just won a court battle over whether or not documents regarding Puzder’s divorce should be available to the public. They’d been under court seal, conveniently, since the day after Donald Trump nominated his Labor Secretary pick. These documents were finally released on Wednesday night.

Information about the Puzder allegations is everywhere, but you’d be hard-pressed to find senators willing to comment on it directly. That might be because Democrats have plenty to dislike about Puzder, even without the disturbing abuse allegations: his record of opposing organized labor, his opposition to a minimum wage hike, the pride he expressed in the gratuitous sexism that characterized his restaurants’ ads, the fact that 65 percent of female employees at CKE restaurants reported being sexually harassed during Puzder’s time at the helm of the company. His preference for robot workers over human workers, the type of robot workers that will almost certainly in the next 10 years put millions of Americans out of work. These are all things that liberals can comfortably oppose without even pointing out that the police had to be summoned to Puzder’s home in order to deal with a domestic dispute. Twice.

Nobody was saying anything, but nothing needed to be said.

Ranking HELP committee member Patty Murray avoided bringing up the accusations in a prepared statement she delivered at a press conference today. Instead, she focused on his poor record of protecting his employees from sexual harassment, and his restaurants’ ads misogyny. She focused on how Puzder’s labor practices as a CEO disproportionately affected women. When a reporter asked Murray what she thought of the domestic violence allegations, she acknowledged that she’d seen Oprah’s tape, and found it “disturbing.” Senators Elizabeth Warren and Maggie Hassan issued a joint statement that didn’t refer directly to the allegations, but did hammer Puzder on his treatment of female employees. It’s nearly impossible to read about Puzder’s treatment of women without thinking about his alleged treatment of his ex-wife. Perhaps that was the intent. Perhaps the two are linked.

Advocacy groups one might normally expect to come out guns blazing against a man with Puzder’s history were also silent. No women’s groups directly confronted Puzder’s personal history. The Daily Beast reached out to several, and none had anything on-record to say.

Of course Democrats and liberal groups were going to oppose Puzder in lockstep. From their perspective, he doesn’t have many redeeming qualities. But Republican opposition to Puzder was a testament to how truly distasteful they must have found the man, or how toxic they believed supporting him could be. By early Wednesday afternoon, a CNN journalist was reporting that four Republicans were definite no votes, with a possible 12 total GOP votes opposing his nomination. If Puzder hadn’t withdrawn and those numbers had born out, he would have been toastier than a flame-broiled bun, even if he made it out of committee. What’s worse, the entire ordeal would have been embarrassing to an already-embattled President. Imagine one of Trump’s nominees falling victim to the Senate, which is controlled by the President’s own party. Sad!

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There’s no shortage of drama in the Trump era. Twenty-four days in, the President has already lost his National Security Advisor, paraded classified information through a Mar-a-Lago patio, and had his signature policy spanked by the most liberal circuit court in the country.

Imagine the optics of Senators Warren, Hassan, Franken, Murray, and Sanders going to town on an alleged domestic abuser with a dismal record on workplace equality. Imagine the moment the dam finally burst and one Senator broke ranks to bring up Puzder’s past. Puzder’s could have been the blood that victory-starved Democrats had been craving since November 9. If tomorrow’s committee hearing on Andrew Puzder’s nomination had gone on as planned, it would have undoubtedly given Trump’s most emboldened opponents a forum on which to embarrass him even more.

In a year without many satisfying moments, this moment stands out. On one hand, an unapologetic champion of sexism is in the White House. But on the other, he wasn’t able to reach down the ladder and pull one more up behind him. Andrew Puzder, unabashed champion of sexism in advertising and unapologetic proponent of working conditions that harm women, has been brought down by the 30-year-old words of a woman. That’s more delicious than the best fast food hamburger I’ve ever had.