The fate of President Donald Trump’s controversial nominee to become the Pentagon’s top policy official, Anthony Tata, turned suddenly rocky on Thursday when the Senate committee responsible for his confirmation abruptly canceled his nomination hearing less than an hour before it was scheduled to begin.
“There are obstacles,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the No. 2-Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said when asked if Tata had any path to confirmation. “There are … obstacles,” he said again, after a pregnant pause.
Tata, a retired Army brigadier general who became a novelist and a Fox News commentator, has drawn fire for past remarks falsely calling former President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader” and a Muslim. Democrats have been unified in their opposition to his nomination from the beginning.
But several GOP members of the panel have also expressed discomfort with him, and it is that discomfort that appears to have jolted his confirmation off the tracks. The committee on Tuesday held an executive meeting to discuss the nomination. By Thursday morning, just as the hearing was scheduled to begin at 9:30, it was canceled.
Committee chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement that the hearing was canceled because the committee had not received the necessary paperwork in time to adequately vet Tata before his hearing, and because some members “didn’t know enough about Anthony Tata to consider him for a very significant position at this time.”
“As I told the President last night, we’re simply out of time with the August recess coming, so it wouldn’t serve any useful purpose to have a hearing at this point, and he agreed,” Inhofe said.
The top Pentagon spokesman told reporters Thursday afternoon that Tata would remain a senior advisor to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and that there are still plans to give him a hearing in September. The White House is also standing behind Tata, with officials reportedly discussing withdrawing his nomination and putting him in the role in an acting capacity.
Legal scholars and staff on the Armed Services Committee say that would be illegal under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.
“In the Committee’s view, Mr. Tata does not meet criteria under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to serve as Acting USD(P) (even if his nomination is withdrawn) – but we would defer that to the Department of Justice,” a committee aide told Defense One.
Punting Tata’s hearing until after the August recess and into the chaotic fall, when Congress’s focus will be exclusively on the 2020 elections and funding the government, likely effectively dooms Tata’s nomination anyway.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said that the stated reason for canceling the hearing — “something about not enough time” — was “sort of a nice way to say we can’t support this guy.”
“There may have been some [Republicans] who were concerned about his background,” Hirono said.
“There are a lot of issues relating to Tata and his behavior and the tweets,” she said. “He’s very, very partisan. I like the military to be run by somebody who actually cares about national defense and national security, not just somebody who is going to just do the president’s bidding.”
Tata is slated to replace the former Undersecretary for Policy John Rood, who was pushed out of the administration as part of a purge of officials who had attempted to push back on White House efforts to withhold security assistance to Ukraine — one of the key inciting incidents in Trump’s impeachment.
At least three prominent retired general officers who had previously supported his nomination withdrew their endorsement after the revelation of Tata’s tweets and other Islamophobic statements.
“I now would not want him in that position,” said retired Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who led U.S. Central Command until 2019, and previously was commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command.
Tata has sought to walk back the remarks, in a letter to senators in which he characterized the tweets as “a few misstatements” that “while grievous, are not indicative of who I am.”
“The general himself has stated he does not believe or support the comments he had made,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Thursday.
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