After Andy Puzder’s withdrawal for consideration as Secretary of Labor, Donald Trump moved with considerable dispatch to replace him with former assistant attorney general for civil rights and U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta, currently dean of the law school at Florida International University.
Acosta, the son of Cuban-American immigrants and a double Harvard grad who clerked for Samuel Alito when the future SCOTUS Justice was on the U.S. Court of Appeals, was chosen from a short list that included three figures who would have been far more controvesial: career union-basher and former South Carolina secretary of Labor Catherine Templeton; immigration critic and civil-rights contrarian Peter Kirsanow; and under-credentialed Trump adviser Joseph Guzman.
Trump’s choice would give his cabinet its first Latino member. But perhaps Acosta’s most important quality is that he’s repeatedly been confirmed by the Senate for previous positions.
What jumps out at you about Acosta’s résumé is that it’s mostly not focused on the labor-law responsibilities of the job he has been nominated to fill. But he did briefly serve on the National Labor Relations Board as a recess appointment of George W. Bush, who was also Acosta’s patron for his high-ranking Justice Department positions.
Acosta mostly stayed out of trouble in the politically sensitive (especially in a Republican administration) civil-rights division job, though he was accused of silent complicity with overt politicization of hiring decisions at the Justice Department, and with intervening on behalf of Ohio Republicans who were seeking to challenge the qualification of minority voters. As U.S. Attorney for South Florida, Acosta’s public profile was raised significantly as he prosecuted famous scofflaws like Jack Abramoff and various drug-cartel members.
What is unknown about Acosta is how he feels about the nexus of immigration and labor conditions for American workers, the issue that probably did more to torpedo Puzder (or certainly to undermine administration support for him) than any other. There’s already one eyebrow-raiser for the Bannon wing of the Trump movement in Acosta’s background: 2011 Senate testimony supporting protection of civil rights for American Muslims. I suspect all sorts of assurances will quietly be made to Trump’s core supporters on such issues. All other things being equal, Cuban-Americans are held in less suspicion than other Latinos among conservatives because they are perceived as having little direct stake in immigration policy.
For the time being, though, in a week when Trump has lost a national security adviser and a cabinet nominee, the key thing is that Acosta looks like a conventional conservative who, so far as we know, has never been accused of beating his spouse or hiring an undocumented immigrant or leering at supermodels that he’s employed to eat burgers in a lascivious manner. It could be enough to stop the bleeding.