On Thursday, President Trump nominated a law school dean as the next secretary of labor after his first choice for the job went down in flames.
R. Alexander Acosta, currently the dean of Florida International University College of Law, served as assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice under President George W. Bush. Acosta is the first Hispanic person nominated to Trump’s cabinet.
“I just want to begin by mentioning that the nominee for secretary of the Department of Labor will be Mr. Alex Acosta,” Trump said at a press conference Thursday afternoon. “He has a law degree from Harvard Law School, great student. Former clerk for Justice Samuel Alito. He’s had a tremendous career.”
The candidacy of Trump’s first choice, Andrew Puzder, collapsed amid a series of high-profile scandals. Puzder withdrew his candidacy on Wednesday after several Senate Republicans said they’d refuse to support him.
Acosta should have an easier time getting through. His CV suggests a relatively typical path to the top of the federal bureaucracy — Harvard University; Harvard Law School; clerk on the US Court of Appeals; years in the Department of Justice; work on labor issues for a Washington, DC, law firm.
Acosta also served from 2002 to 2003 on the National Labor Relations Board. He has already been confirmed by the Senate for federal position on three separate occasions, according to his website. The contrast with Puzder — a fast-food CEO who had no record of public service, embraced salacious ads of bikini-clad models gorging on burgers, and faced accusations of assaulting his ex-wife — could hardly be more stark.
For progressives, Acosta’s record at DOJ looks mixed
Few Senate Democrats had reacted publicly to Acosta’s selection shortly after news of it broke Thursday afternoon.
An early look at Acosta’s record suggests they’ll be torn.
The Civil Rights Division under George W. Bush has become a watchword for progressives — a model of what conservatives do with parts of the federal government they don’t like. The division deemphasized some kinds of cases (like voting rights) and "hired lawyers for career positions based on their political or ideological affiliations,” in the words of a DOJ Office of the Inspector General report from 2009.
Acosta didn’t direct the politicization of the Civil Rights Division, according to the inspector general — that was done by one of his underlings, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Bradley Schlozman. But Acosta certainly failed to stop it. The report concludes that Acosta "did not sufficiently supervise” Schlozman, despite red flags about Schlozman’s “conduct and judgment."
Still, other parts of Acosta’s record appear likely to comfort Democrats. As Reuters notes, Acosta pursued high-profile defendants such as Jack Abramoff and the Swiss bank UBS while the US attorney for the Southern District of Florida.
And Acosta is already winning praise in left-leaning circles on Twitter for a speech he gave to Congress in 2011 about the importance of “protecting the civil rights of American Muslims.” Particularly given liberal fears about how Trump’s attorney general will go after the rights of minorities, Acosta’s words about the necessity of prosecuting perpetrators of hate crimes against Muslims may offer some solace:
Starting in September 2001, the Department of Justice took great effort to address post-9/11 backlash against Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and others, who though members of different faiths (such as Sikh Americans) were nonetheless the target of backlash.
From 2001 through early 2005, the Department investigated more than 630 “backlash” incidents, which resulted in nearly 150 state and local prosecutions (many with federal assistance), and the federal prosecution of 27 defendants in 22 cases. Some were particularly violent. ...
These efforts following 9/11 were important. They set a tone. They reminded those who might be tempted to take out their anger on an entire community that such actions were wrong.