Top Trump Pentagon Nominee Walks Back Offensive Tweets

Anthony Tata says he retracts his 2018 tweets calling former President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader.”

The Pentagon
The Pentagon building in Washington on Dec. 26, 2011. STAFF/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump’s embattled pick to be the Pentagon’s top policy official is walking back Islamophobic and offensive tweets unearthed earlier this month that led several Democrats to oppose his nomination.

Anthony Tata, a retired Army brigadier general and a longtime defender of Trump on Fox News who is the White House’s intended nominee to be undersecretary of defense for policy, caused a firestorm on Capitol Hill when CNN revealed 2018 tweets that falsely referred to former President Barack Obama as a Muslim and a “terrorist leader.”

In a letter obtained by Foreign Policy that was sent to Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, and Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, the chairman and ranking member on the Senate Armed Services committee, Tata said he had come to “deeply regret” the tweets and called them an “aberration in a four-decade thread of faithful public service.”

“I have a strong record of inclusivity and bipartisanship in my commentary. However, I did misspeak in 2018 on Twitter in hyperbolic conversations,” Tata wrote. “There is no excuse for those comments, for which I take complete responsibility and also fully retract and denounce.”

Tata used much of the eight-paragraph letter to bolster his case for the Pentagon job, touting his military service in Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, and his work in the Washington, D.C., and Wake County, N.C., public school systems. Tata retired from the military in 2009 after the Army found that he committed adultery with at least two women during a past marriage and forged a court order in the case.

“Gentlemen—I hope you will be able to judge me on my entire 30+ year career and record of achievement and not a few regrettable tweets I fully denounce,” Tata wrote in the margin at the end of the letter.

But the news of Tata’s tweets—which included a spat with former CIA Director John Brennan—already sent Congress into a tailspin last week, with six Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee publicly opposing his nomination. Tata was tapped to replace John Rood, whom Trump fired in February after Rood opposed the White House’s freeze on military aid for Ukraine.

Reed, in an unprecedented statement through spokesman Chip Unruh last week, said that “there are real warning signs flashing” with Tata’s nomination and that he would oppose it if it moved forward. Reed’s opposition to the nomination cuts against his usual preference to only comment on nominees after testimony, according to a statement Unruh gave to Politico last week. The former brigadier general has not yet received a date for a hearing before the committee. Former Democratic presidential contenders Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York also said they would oppose Tata, as did Hawaii’s Sen. Mazie Hirono, Michigan’s Sen. Gary Peters, and Connecticut’s Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Tata is currently serving in the Pentagon as a senior advisor to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Foreign Policy first reported in May.

CNN’s review of Tata’s tweets and appearances on Fox News and talk radio pointed to a pattern of partisan jabs at Obama and congressional Democrats. Tata referred to Obama as an “anti-Semite” in a 2018 radio appearance after saying the former commander in chief “really disliked Israel” the year before. He also said now-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Maxine Waters, both California Democrats, “have always been the same violent extremists.”

Tata had already been under fire from the Muslim civil rights advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations for falsely portraying British Muslim men as engaging in gang rape as a rite of passage in a spy novel released in 2019. But the release of the tweets proved a turning point for several prominent retired generals who had endorsed Tata’s nod to take over the Pentagon’s policy shop, including a former U.S. Central Command chief, retired Gen. Joseph Votel, and a former U.S. Special Operations Command chief, retired Gen. Tony Thomas. Both pulled their support for the embattled nominee.

Votel told Foreign Policy on Monday that Tata’s disavowal would not change his decision to oppose the nomination.

Tata’s selection to be the Pentagon’s top policy official comes as top officials questioned over their loyalty to Trump are leaving in favor of White House partisans, with two of the agency’s highest-ranking women leaving in just the last week.

On Wednesday, Kathryn Wheelbarger resigned from her role performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, just days after she was passed over for a leading Defense Department intelligence job amid concerns over her loyalty to Trump. Elaine McCusker, the Pentagon’s acting comptroller, resigned on Tuesday after her nomination for the permanent post was rescinded. McCusker had opposed the White House’s halting of military aid to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, with Trump’s first National Security Advisor Michael Flynn cleared by the Justice Department of charges of lying to the FBI, the Defense Department has recently opened its doors to officials linked to the former Army general.

Simone Ledeen, the daughter of Flynn’s co-author on a 2016 book about the threat posed by “radical Islam,” took the helm of the Pentagon’s Middle East shop in April, followed by Ezra Cohen, a former National Security Council director under Flynn, who joined the agency as deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics.

Correction, June 22, 2020: Anthony Tata’s retirement from the Army became effective in 2009. A previous version of this article misstated his retirement date.

Elaine McCusker submitted her resignation on Tuesday. A previous version of this article misstated her resignation date.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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