The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate hearing for controversial Pentagon nominee Anthony Tata canceled just before it was set to begin

Anthony J. Tata, a military officer turned novelist and frequent Fox News guest, has faced mounting opposition from Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

The nomination of a retired general for a senior civilian position in the Trump administration was cast into doubt Thursday when his confirmation hearing was canceled just before it was scheduled to begin amid signs that he did not have enough Republican votes.

Anthony J. Tata, who was nominated by President Trump to be undersecretary of defense for policy, has faced opposition from Democrats for inflammatory past remarks that included calling President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader.” Trump had pressed the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), for a hearing, despite rising objections to Tata’s background.

One defense official familiar with the process, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that once Inhofe and the administration figured out late Wednesday that Tata did not have the votes needed, “there was no need” to go through a difficult hearing.

Tata has served since this spring as a senior adviser to Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper in an unconfirmed capacity, despite Esper’s pledge to shield the Defense Department from partisan politics.

Jonathan Rath Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday afternoon that the Defense Department was looking forward to Tata having the opportunity to share his “experience and success” with the Armed Services Committee, and that he will remain with the department as a senior adviser.

“I have no other personnel announcements to make right now,” Hoffman said during a news conference.

The confirmation hearing had been scheduled for 9:30 a.m., and notification of its cancellation was shared with lawmakers before 8 a.m., said three congressional officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The committee confirmed the cancellation by about 9 a.m., after it was first reported by The Washington Post.

Officials familiar with the matter expected the White House to ultimately withdraw Tata’s nomination -- particularly because his hearing was canceled, not merely postponed.

Some of them questioned whether Trump may want to install Tata in another administration job on an acting basis. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act prevents the president from appointing someone on an acting basis to a position for which they also have been nominated, tweeted Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas Law School.

Inhofe acknowledged the change of plans in a statement just after 9 a.m., saying he had informed Trump on Wednesday night. The chairman did not say Tata’s nomination has been pulled by the administration, leaving the possibility that Trump will pressure lawmakers to vote for his nominee.

“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 said in the statement. “We didn’t get the required documentation in time; some documents, which we normally get before a hearing, didn’t arrive until yesterday. 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.”

Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on the committee, said in a statement after Inhofe’s announcement that “it’s fair to say members on both sides of the aisle” raised “serious questions” about Tata.

“We had a closed door session on Tuesday and today’s public hearing has now been cancelled,” Reed said. "Chairman Inhofe did the right thing here, and it’s clear this nomination isn’t going anywhere without a full, fair, open hearing.”

Among those who shared doubts about Tata, a novelist and frequent Fox News guest who also has worked in North Carolina politics, were Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a fellow Army veteran who faces a strong reelection challenge. She said in an interview Tuesday that she was “still vetting him” and that she could not say “I would be optimistic” about his chances, citing in part “comments from Iowans who are now retired but have worked with him.”

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) had also expressed doubts about Tata, albeit for different reasons. He has pressured the Pentagon to add the names of sailors killed in a 1969 ship collision at sea to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and would not commit to voting for Tata.

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

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) also are members of the Armed Services Committee and face strong reelection challenges.

Inhofe signaled he would support Tata.

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

Tata, 60, served in the Army for 28 years, retiring as a brigadier general in 2009 after an Army inspector general investigation found that he had at least two extramarital affairs during his career, despite adultery being a crime in the military. He would replace former undersecretary John Rood, who resigned in February after opposing the Trump administration withholding aid money to Ukraine, an issue that was at the center of Trump’s impeachment and subsequent acquittal along party lines.

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

At one point, Tata tweeted in 2018 that Islam was the “most oppressive violent religion I know of” and said Obama wanted to “help Islamic countries more than any president in history.”

Tata also targeted former CIA director John Brennan, at one point telling him that he should “pick his poison,” including execution or sucking “on a pistol,” despite the U.S. government’s struggle to curb an epidemic of suicides among service members and veterans. He included the hashtag “#treason.”

Tata, who has not responded to interview requests, apologized in a letter to senators last month, saying the remarks “while grievous, are not indicative of who I am.”

Civil rights leaders and some lawmakers rejected that apology, noting that Tata’s inflammatory remarks were directed at numerous people in both tweets and interviews.

Scott Simpson, public advocacy director for the nonprofit Muslim Advocates, said in a statement Thursday that the canceled hearing shows that “deep incompetence and naked bigotry can still be disqualifying in Washington, but only when people of conscience organize to hold their senators accountable.”

Simpson added that opponents of Tata’s nomination are “not out of the woods yet,” noting that he has worked within the Defense Department as an information adviser.

“We urge the White House to acknowledge where the wind is blowing and immediately withdraw this nomination,” Simpson said. "We also urge Tata to cease all work at the Pentagon.”