Confirmation in doubt for controversial Pentagon nominee Tata after Senate cancels hearing

Aerial view of the Pentagon, headquarters of the Department of Defense. (DoD photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON — Bipartisan backlash against Anthony Tata, the former North Carolina government official who was President Donald Trump’s controversial pick for a senior Pentagon position, has thrown his nomination into doubt.

CNN reported Thursday evening that Senate sources expect the White House to withdraw his name. However, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Friday during a press briefing: “The president still supports General Tata,” according to a report from Politico.

Tata’s nomination was already in doubt after Republicans abruptly canceled plans for his nomination hearing earlier in the day.

Anthony Tata is a former North Carolina government official whose nomination to a top Pentagon post has become controversial. (Photo by North Carolina Policy Watch)

Tata, a 61-year-old retired Army brigadier general, novelist and Fox News commentator, was scheduled for a vetting Thursday in the Senate Committee on Armed Services for the No. 3 position at the Pentagon. But Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., announced shortly before the hearing was set to begin that it would not go on.

Tata led the North Carolina Department of Transportation until he resigned in 2015. Before that, he was superintendent of the Wake County Public System, North Carolina’s largest, from 2010 to 2012, when the Democratic-majority board voted to fire him. While he worked at NC DOT, Tata wrote two action thriller novels, “Mortal Threat” and “Foreign and Domestic.”

Senators indicated this week that Tata may not have the support needed to make it through the confirmation process for the Pentagon job.

“There are many Democrats and Republicans who didn’t know enough about Anthony Tata to consider him for a very significant position at this time,” Inhofe tweeted Thursday morning.

Inhofe said some documents that usually come in before hearings begin did not arrive to the committee until Wednesday.

“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.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the committee, said members of both parties raised “serious questions about this nominee” in a closed-door session earlier this week.

“Chairman Inhofe did the right thing here, and it’s clear this nomination isn’t going anywhere without a full, fair, open hearing,” Reed said in a statement about the canceled hearing.

North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis, who is in the midst of his own tough re-election campaign, sits on the committee and would have been called on to vote on the confirmation. His office did not immediately reply to requests for comment on whether he supported Tata’s nomination.

Sen. Richard Burr’s office declined to comment and referred all questions to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The North Carolina Republican has already said he’s not running for re-election.

Inflammatory remarks 

Trump nominated Tata earlier this summer to be the undersecretary of defense for policy. The influential position serves as the principal policy advisor to the Secretary of Defense and leads the coordination of national security policy.

The position oversees the policy team, which comprises military and civilian members and provides “responsive, forward-thinking and insightful policy advice” to the Secretary of Defense, according to the Defense Department.

The prominent position has been vacant since former undersecretary John Rood resigned in February at Trump’s request. Rood had warned the administration it should not withhold military aid to Ukraine — an issue that was at the center of Trump’s impeachment controversy.

James Anderson, a former vice president at Marine Corps University, has held the post in an “acting” role since June.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is one of the more bipartisan committees, and Reed said he usually waits to make a decision on nominees until after their hearing. But in this case, he and six other Democrats on the committee made the rare decision to publicly oppose Tata  not long after he was nominated in June.

Tata came under fire for inflammatory remarks he made in the past. CNN reported in June that he had called Barack Obama a “terrorist leader” on Twitter in 2018. Tata later deleted the tweet. He also called Islam “the most oppressive violent religion” and said the Iran nuclear deal came about because of Obama’s “Islamic roots.”

Tata apologized for the statements in a letter to Inhofe and Reed, referring to them as an “aberration in a four-decade thread of faithful public service.”

Another CNN investigation of past radio and television interviews uncovered that Tata had spread conspiracy theories of a “deep state cabal” of federal officials actively working to set up Trump to fail. Two retired Army generals came out against his nomination after that report.

Ten Senate Democrats, half of whom sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee, signed onto a July 24 letter asking him to withdraw his nomination and step down from his current position as a senior advisor at the Pentagon. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.; and other signatories characterized the apology as a “conveniently timed retraction by someone who has suddenly realized his nomination is in jeopardy.”

“Anyone nominated to be a high-ranking Pentagon official must be qualified and also a person of high character whose record is consistent with the values of our country and those of the U.S. military,” the lawmakers wrote. “Nominees should see the value diversity, inclusion and unity bring to our institutions. Unfortunately, your history of public remarks does not meet this standard.”

Civil rights groups also came out against the nomination. The NAACP, Muslim Advocates and Faithful America, a grassroots Christian social-justice group, held a press call this week to publicly call on Tillis and other senators to reject Tata because of his hateful rhetoric. The Rev. Nathan Empsall, the campaign director for Faithful America, called the hearing cancellation a “good sign.”

Tata’s time in the Army itself was also not without controversy. The Army’s Office of Inspector General in 2007 investigated a forged court order related to financial support for the daughter he had with his first wife, The News & Observer uncovered in 2015. The Army also found that he had extramarital affairs with “at least two” women — a crime in the military. Tata retired honorably from the Army in 2009.

Some Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee have been hesitant to support Tata. Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, another Army veteran, told The Washington Postearlier this week that she was “still vetting him” and not sure about his chances.

North Dakota Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer threatened to block the nomination for other reasons. Cramer said he would oppose the nomination unless the Pentagon changed some positions — including adding to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial the names of sailors of the U.S.S. Frank Evans who were killed in a 1969 ship collision.

“When I spoke to Anthony Tata about his nomination today, I reiterated my frustration with the bureaucracy and its firm hold on the Defense Department,” Cramer said in a statement after a conversation with Tata July 21, citing the Vietnam Memorial issue.

“If the Department does not make significant changes to its policy, I plan to oppose Tata’s nomination,” Cramer said.