President Trump’s pick for the Pentagon’s top policy job saw his chances of being confirmed as undersecretary take a big hit Thursday after his Senate nomination hearing was abruptly canceled just before it was set to begin.
Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said retired Army Gen. Anthony Tata, 60, will continue to act as a “senior adviser” to Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the Pentagon, and for now was waiting for a signal from Capitol Hill on the nominee’s future.
But the White House itself was silent on the delay and whether it would continue to press the controversial pick in the face of fierce opposition from Democrats and rising reservations from some Republicans.
The outspoken Mr. Tata was expected to face tough questioning from Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee after polarizing remarks he had made on social media were discovered, including criticizing Islam and calling former President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader.”
Mr. Tata later apologized for the comments in a letter to lawmakers.
“The general himself has stated that he does not believe or support the comments he made,” Mr. Hoffman said.
But the fact that committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, called off the hearing without setting a new date suggested Mr. Trump’s pick was having trouble rounding up the votes. CNN reported Thursday that the White House was weighing dropping the Senate confirmation fight.
Mr. Tata, a novelist and frequent commentator on the Fox News, had been nominated to be undersecretary of defense for policy — often considered the No. 3 position in the Pentagon. His predecessor, John C. Rood, ran afoul of Mr. Trump in part for his small role in complicating the White House’s case against impeachment last year, greenlighting military aid for Ukraine that Mr. Trump later held up.
Mr. Inhofe put some of the blame for the hearing’s cancellation on missed paperwork from the White House.
“We didn’t get the required documents in time. Some documents, which we normally get before a hearing, didn’t arrive until yesterday,” said the Oklahoma Republican, a reliable Trump ally who has said he personally backs Mr. Tata’s nomination.
Some top former officials who had initially supported Mr. Tata’s nomination backed out when reports of his controversial social media comments were made public, but others are continuing to stand by him. Some have painted the nomination fight as a test case for the Trump White House’s drive to ensure supporters are filling the bureaucracy’s key policy posts.
Ron Moeller, a retired CIA paramilitary officer, worked closely in Afghanistan with Mr. Tata, who was then deputy commanding general of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
“As an officer I found him demanding. I don’t mean that in a negative connotation. He demanded perfection,” said Mr. Moeller, who was the spy agency’s base chief in Bagram at the time.
In a telephone interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Moeller said he always found Mr. Tata to be an “outside the box” thinker who is not part of the D.C. establishment.
He said Mr. Tata is facing stiff opposition solely because he is seen as a Trump supporter.
“I really don’t want the president to blink on this. This is the guy he wanted and it’s the guy the country needs,” Mr. Moeller said.
But Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said members on both sides of the aisle still have serious questions about Mr. Tata.
“Chairman Inhofe did the right thing here and it’s clear this nomination isn’t going anywhere without a full, fair, open hearing,” Mr. Reed said.
Mr. Inhofe said he told Mr. Trump on Wednesday evening that “we’re simply out of time with the August recess coming. It wouldn’t serve any purpose to have a hearing at this point and he agreed.”
Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York is one of several Democrats on the Armed Services Committee who urged Mr. Tata to withdraw. She also wants him to resign his current assignment as an adviser to the defense secretary.
“The comments made by Brigadier Gen. Tata are unacceptable and should be disqualifying for any public servant, let alone a top ranking Pentagon official,” Ms. Gillibrand said. “He has repeatedly made dangerous comments that have made clear his character is not in line with the values of our military or our country.”
For his part, Mr. Moeller said he still considers Mr. Tata a friend who is getting a raw deal.
“I feel for him getting lambasted by the political people,” he said. “We need somebody like him. I was really happy when he was nominated.”
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