Congress Eyes Hearing for Controversial Trump Pentagon Pick

The move comes after the president personally lobbied the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee to confirm Anthony Tata as the Defense Department’s top policy official.

U.S. President Donald Trump (R) speaks on immigration issues while meeting with members of the U.S. Congress in the Cabinet Room of the White House June 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. Also pictured is Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK).
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks while meeting with members of the U.S. Congress, including Sen. Jim Inhofe (left), in the Cabinet Room of the White House on June 20, 2018. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Senate Armed Services Committee is eyeing a confirmation hearing for U.S. President Donald Trump’s embattled pick to lead the Defense Department’s powerful policy shop before the end of the month, two people familiar with the move told Foreign Policy, despite unusually forceful opposition to the pick from Senate Democrats and rights groups. 

The powerful authorizing panel is targeting a July 30 hearing for Anthony Tata, Trump’s choice to be undersecretary of defense for policy, who was recently forced to walk back a series of offensive and conspiratorial tweets uncovered by CNN. Those tweets included remarks characterizing former President Barack Obama as a “terrorist leader” and picking fights with former CIA Director John Brennan.

In preparation for the possible hearing, Tata—a retired U.S. Army brigadier general—is set to meet with members of the panel on July 28 in a closed session to head off possible concerns about his nomination. Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the armed services panel, said last month he would vote against the pick, and fellow Democrats joined him in their opposition.

But Trump has remained steadfast in the nomination, sending Republican White House ally and Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe a handwritten letter last month urging the panel to confirm his choice. Tata, who retired from the military in 2009 after an Army inquiry found that he had committed adultery with two women during a previous marriage, has appeared regularly on Fox News as a defender of Trump’s policies.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department has been asked to draft so-called Advance Policy Questions that provide a more detailed look at his worldview for the job, which is to serve as the principal policy assistant to Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

While aides said it was not common to have a closed session first, there is suspicion that it could help give cover to embattled Republicans on the committee, such as Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa, Martha McSally of Arizona, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, all of whom are trailing narrowly in their reelection bids according to recent RealClearPolitics polling averages.

“I suspect it’s to firm up wavering Rs,” a Democratic Senate aide told Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity. “I’m sure they’ll all fall in line and vote the ‘right’ way in the end but they can’t be happy about taking this vote three months before the election.” Defense News reported in June that Inhofe planned to host a meeting of Republicans on the panel to weigh support for Tata’s nomination.   

Inhofe, who attended Trump’s rally in Tulsa last month, appeared concerned by Tata’s tweets. “I don’t want to say it disqualifies him and we’re not going to consider him, but I’m saying that got our attention,” he told CNN.

Several prominent retired generals also pulled their prior support for Tata’s nomination, including former U.S. Central Command chief Joseph Votel and former U.S. Special Operations Command chief Tony Thomas.

But the decision to move ahead with the pick—if he is cleared by committee—would kick the nomination to the full Senate, leaving the problem in the hands of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican polling ahead of his Democratic challenger, who might face members in less secure seats questioning the nomination on the floor. “If he gets voted out of committee, he becomes McConnell’s problem, not Inhofe’s,” the Democratic Senate aide told Foreign Policy

Yet even if the nomination fails in committee or on the Senate floor, the Trump administration could take advantage of ambiguities in the 1998 Vacancies Act to install controversial figures such as Tata into acting senior defense roles without a thumbs-up from Congress. Foreign Policy reported in May that Tata was already serving as a senior advisor to Esper.

Politico reported on Friday that the administration is considering moving Tata into a different senior Pentagon role that would not require Senate confirmation. Last week, Trump tapped Michael Kratsios, the White House chief technology officer, to serve as the Defense Department’s acting head of research and engineering. The 33-year-old Kratsios, a former employee of the billionaire venture capitalist and onetime Trump supporter Peter Thiel, is replacing a former NASA administrator in the role.

The push to install Tata in a new role at the Pentagon comes as the Trump administration has in recent weeks intensified a series of government-wide interviews of political appointees in what are seen as tests of loyalty to the president, with representatives from the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office questioning officials from the Pentagon and other agencies.

The White House has also sought to place Trump loyalists into high-ranking Pentagon roles, sometimes over objections from inside the department. In May, the White House Liaison Office directed the Defense Department to hire Rich Higgins, a former National Security Council staffer under Michael Flynn later fired for a sending a widely circulated memo alleging conspiracies to overthrow Trump and known for Islamophobic tweets, to serve as chief of staff to the undersecretary of defense for policy.

Higgins has yet to be brought on, but several other Flynn-linked officials have recently joined the Pentagon, including former NSC staffer Ezra Cohen-Watnick as deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats, and Simone Ledeen, who is serving as the Defense Department’s top Middle East policy official after prior stints at the Pentagon and the Treasury Department. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee did not have a hearing announcement when asked by Foreign Policy. The panel typically announces its hearings a week in advance. But with few remaining days on the legislative calendar before August recess and the Senate hanging in the balance during this election cycle, some experts fear that Congress has little time left to deal with the administration’s nagging problem of filling vacant roles.

The departure of Michael Griffin as the Defense Department’s confirmed research and engineering chief, and his deputy, Lisa Porter, earlier this month leaves 20 of 60 senior positions at the Pentagon vacant or temporarily filled, according to figures provided by a Pentagon spokesperson. Eight nominees for Senate-confirmed civilian jobs are awaiting an official hearing date, including Tata. 

“The biggest enemy of the confirmation process is the clock. It’s the calendar,” Arnold Punaro, a retired U.S. Marine Corps major general and a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Foreign Policy. “After this batch they’re going to do before the August recess you’ve pretty much run out of airspeed and altitude on civilian nominations.”

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

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