The ex-wife of President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, appeared in disguise on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as a victim of domestic violence, after having accused him multiple times of physically assaulting her in the 1980s, according to two friends of hers and a spokesman for the former couple.
Additionally, a 1988 petition obtained by POLITICO from the Circuit Court of St. Louis County provides previously unreported details of the alleged abuse: Puzder’s ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, accused him of having “assaulted and battered [her] by striking her violently about the face, chest, back, shoulders, and neck, without provocation or cause,” and that as a consequence she “suffered severe and permanent injuries.”
Fierstein’s accusations first surfaced in local news reports around the time of their divorce. She has retracted the allegations in the weeks leading up to Puzder’s confirmation hearing, suggesting she made them up to bolster her divorce settlement. Puzder has always denied that he abused her.
But women’s groups are using the charges as ammunition in their fight to oppose his nomination. And Fierstein’s appearance on “Oprah,” when she was known as Lisa Henning, raises new questions, showing that she went beyond divorce-settlement tactics to portray herself on national television as an anonymous victim of domestic violence.
Fierstein appeared on the show in a wig and glasses, and was identified only by the made-up name of Ann. Multiple sources, including George Thompson, a spokesman for Puzder and Fierstein, confirmed the appearance. Fierstein did not mention Puzder by name, but a friend of hers who previously worked for her told POLITICO that Fierstein made clear to her that the allegations she made on the program concerned Puzder. Winfrey’s company said it could not locate a tape of the episode.
Puzder, CEO of fast-food company CKE Restaurants, declined to comment for this story. A spokeswoman for the Trump transition dismissed the latest revelations.
“This is part of a desperate smear campaign to distract from President-elect Trump’s agenda of creating jobs and opportunities for American workers,” spokeswoman Liz Johnson said in an email. “As both Mr. Puzder and Ms. Fierstein have made clear, these were false allegations that were made 30 years ago, and in fact, they are good friends.”
Puzder’s confirmation hearing, originally scheduled to take place next week, has been delayed as the Senate confronts a crowded nominations calendar, and may not take place until February, a Senate aide said Tuesday.
Puzder’s support in the Senate seems solid among Republicans so far, but Democrats and women’s groups plan to make his confirmation uncomfortable, even if it’s a losing cause.
“I can’t imagine a single organization that cares about women that would not vigorously oppose him,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.
Puzder and Fierstein claim amicable relations today, and Fierstein says they have even shared Thanksgiving dinner. But after they divorced in 1987, Fierstein sued Puzder, alleging that he had committed assault and battery the year before.
In an email to Puzder last November, disclosed by him, Fierstein wrote: “You know how deeply I regret many of the rash decisions I made at that time, and I sincerely hope that none of those decisions will become an issue for you. … You were not abusive.”
In a brief interview with POLITICO this week, Fierstein called her ex-husband “a terrific guy with a wonderful character.” Court documents show that both agreed to drop abuse charges as part of a 1990 child-custody agreement. That same year, Fierstein wrote Puzder: “All allegations of abuse of any kind were made in the context of divorce proceedings. I fully withdraw these allegations.”
In a follow-up letter the following year, Fierstein wrote: “Our marital relationship deteriorated and events leading to the public humiliation we both endured ensued.”
Court records show that between 1986 and 1988 Fierstein filed at least three legal documents accusing Puzder of assaulting her in May 1986. One petition obtained by POLITICO described her injuries: “bruises and contusions to the chest, back, shoulders and neck” and “two ruptured discs and two bulging discs,” and “all of the muscles, bones, ligaments and soft tissue of [Fierstein’s] face, chest, back, shoulders, and neck were violently wrenched, strained, swollen, contused and otherwise injured.”
The judge in the case dismissed the petition, in which Fierstein sought $350,000 in damages, on the grounds that Puzder’s divorce agreement had already settled all Fierstein’s prior claims against him.
But Fierstein’s allegations of abuse weren’t confined to filings related to a divorce agreement. Court documents indicate that Fierstein filed an abuse claim against Puzder before the divorce — within a couple of weeks of the alleged May 1986 domestic violence incident. Fierstein also sought a protective court order against Puzder, documents show. The couple formally separated in June 1986.
The claim was settled through a consent order that suggests that Puzder had been barred from the house, because the order allowed him to move back into the family home, provided he stayed away from the floors occupied by his wife and children.
Except for the consent order, none of the 1986 documents was made available by the St. Louis County court to POLITICO, even though the 1988 petition cited them as exhibits. An undated order from the court said the exhibits were “sealed, and shall not be included in the copies of this case file provided to the public.”
The abuse allegations come on top of Puzder’s history of comments about women and his anti-abortion activism, both of which have also stirred opposition from feminist groups.
In his capacity running CKE — parent company of Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Green Burrito and Red Burrito — Puzder approved a series of Carl’s Jr. ads targeted at young males in which scantily clad models mimicked sexual arousal as they sank their teeth into juicy hamburgers. A 2011 CKE press release said, “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don’t sell burgers.”
“I like our ads,” Puzder told Entrepreneur magazine in 2015. “I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s very American. I used to hear, brands take on the personality of the CEO. And I rarely thought that was true. But I think this one, in this case, it kind of did take on my personality.”
For many women’s groups, another strike against Puzder is his previous career as an anti-abortion lawyer in Missouri. The 1986 state law that Puzder helped write restricted women’s access to abortion by requiring, among other things, that physicians determine whether a fetus was “viable” before they abort, and by prohibiting in most cases use of public funds for “encouraging or counseling” a woman to have an abortion. The law, whose text asserted that “the life of each human being begins at conception” and that “unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being,” was upheld in the 1989 Supreme Court decision Webster v. Reproductive Health Services.
Thompson provided testimonials from women employed at CKE, praising Puzder.
“Andy is always very respectful to women,” said Cheryl Soper, vice president of benefits at CKE, in a written statement. “I have been in many meetings with him, and he doesn’t treat anyone differently, man or woman.”