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Trump’s nominee for senior Pentagon job is in trouble heading into hearing

The then-Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation Anthony Tata, spoke at an event in downtown Fayetteville, N.C., Aug. 16, 2014.

LALITA HAZELETT/U.S. ARMY

By DAN LAMOTHE AND SEUNG MIN KIM | The Washington Post | Published: July 29, 2020

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s nomination of a retired Army general for a senior Pentagon position appeared to be in trouble Wednesday, with Republicans and Democrats alike expressing concern about his inflammatory comments about Islam, partisan attacks and infidelity.

Anthony Tata, a military officer turned novelist and Fox News commentator, faces mounting opposition from Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee because of his past remarks, which include falsely calling former President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader.”

The contested nomination for undersecretary of defense for policy is emblematic of the Trump administration’s difficulty in finding qualified nominees and getting them confirmed. It also highlights anew Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s struggles to shield the Pentagon from partisanship while serving under a president who repeatedly has dragged the military into political battles.

The influential position has been held on an acting basis since former undersecretary John Rood was swept out of the Pentagon in February, after he warned that the administration should not withhold military aid to Ukraine. That issue ended up at the center of Trump’s impeachment and subsequent acquittal along party lines.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the committee chairman, said in an interview that Trump has made it clear to him that he wants Tata to get a hearing, which is scheduled for Thursday morning. Inhofe, asked about Tata’s past comments, acknowledged that a party-line confirmation vote is possible and aligned himself with Tata, who did not respond to interview requests.

“He’s not a real tactful person,” Inhofe said. “But, of course, neither am I. Nor is the president.”

Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday that the department is looking forward “to General Tata having a chance to share his record of leadership and success in public service and his extensive national security experience with the Committee on Thursday.”

But it is not clear that Tata has enough support among Republicans to be confirmed. His nomination could put those who are facing reelection in the difficult position of either facing the president’s wrath or defending their vote.

One Republican on the committee, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, expressed doubts about Tata on Tuesday.

“You know, I’m still vetting him, but I can’t say that I would be optimistic,” she said in an interview. Ernst added that she has heard “comments from Iowans who are now retired but have worked with him,” and that she values their feedback.

Another Republican, Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, also remains uncommitted.

“I’ve been visiting with him and I’m getting more comfortable with that, but we’ll have an opportunity at a hearing,” he said. “We’ll see after that, how the hearing goes.”

He has used Tata’s confirmation process to vent unrelated frustrations with the Pentagon’s unwillingness to add the names of sailors killed aboard the USS Frank E. Evans, a destroyer that collided with an Australian aircraft carrier in 1969, to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial because the accident occurred in the South China Sea, outside the war zone.

Tata, 60, served 28 years in the Army, retiring in 2009 after a career that included a stint as the deputy commanding general of the 10th Mountain Division during a deployment to Afghanistan. His career ended after an Army inspector general investigation found that he had “at least two” extramarital affairs during his career, despite the fact adultery is a crime in the military.

After Trump nominated Tata in June, CNN surfaced tweets and comments he had made in interviews in which he denigrated Obama and other former senior U.S. officials in conspiratorial terms.

Tata at one point tweeted in 2018 that Islam was the “most oppressive violent religion I know of” and said that Obama was a “terrorist leader” who did more to harm the U.S. and to “help Islamic countries than any president in history.”

Tata also at one point called accused former CIA Director John Brennan, without evidence, of attempting to order the killing of Trump through a tweet by quoting the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero.

“This is a signal to someone, somewhere,” Tata wrote. “Cicero was assassinated for political reasons. This is a clear threat against @POTUS.”

At another point in 2018, Tata tweeted at Brennan, telling him he should be prepared to “pick his poison,” including execution or just sucking “on a pistol,” despite the U.S. government’s long struggle to curb an epidemic of suicides among service members and veterans. He included the hashtag “#treason.”

Tata apologized in a letter to senators, downplaying the attacks as a “few misstatements” made in 8,800 tweets. The remarks, he wrote, “while grievous, are not indicative of who I am.”

A former senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Wednesday that he does not think Tata can be confirmed unless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., decides to push a vote through by invoking cloture, limiting debate about Tata.

The former official said it was notable that Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the committee’s leading Democrat, came out early against Tata’s nomination, something he does not typically do. The White House, not the Pentagon, is driving Tata’s nomination, and it is unclear whether McConnell will require Republican senators to make “walk-the-plank” votes over Tata, the former official said.

“It’s kind of hard to see him as a serious person for a job where you have to negotiate and talk to allies about serious issues,” the former official said.

On Monday, two retired Army generals who served with Tata defended him in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. Retired Maj. Gens. Clarence Chin and Dana Pittard wrote that while Tata’s tweets were “ill-considered” and critics have “called for his head,” he had an “unimpeachable record of combating racism and effecting change for the betterment of communities of color.”

Pittard, who is Black, said in an interview that he and Chin, who is Asian American, co-authored the piece after Pittard asked Tata how he could help on the nomination process.

The article highlights Tata’s work in the 82nd Airborne Division and the 101st Airborne Division to “fix racist and anti-gay cultures” following one murder by a white supremacist soldier in Fayetteville, N.C., and the separate murder of a gay soldier in a barracks at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Pittard called Tata’s comments about Obama “egregious” and “unacceptable” but said he has known Tata since they were classmates at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., more than 40 years ago.

“There are plenty of classmates from West Point who have race problems, believe me,” Pittard said. “But Tony Tata isn’t one of them.”

The Washington Post’s Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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