Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has withdrawn retired senior diplomat Anne W. Patterson as his choice for undersecretary for policy after the White House indicated unwillingness to fight what it said would be a battle for Senate confirmation.
U.S. officials said that two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), were strongly opposed to Patterson’s nomination because she served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 2011 to 2013, a time when the Obama administration supported an elected government with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood that was ultimately overthrown by the Egyptian military.
The withdrawal leaves Mattis with a bench still empty of Trump-appointed senior officials, a situation that stretches across the administration as Cabinet secretaries have not chosen or the White House has not approved nominees. Although Obama administration holdovers remain in a few jobs, after eight weeks in office, President Trump has not nominated a single high official under Cabinet rank in the Defense or State departments.
In the service branches, former Republican congresswoman Heather Wilson has been named, but not confirmed, as Air Force secretary, while picks for Army and Navy secretaries have withdrawn from consideration.
The White House plans this week — perhaps as early as Tuesday — to announce a handful of approved nominees proposed by Mattis for senior Defense Department positions, but Patterson will not be among them, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about internal decision-making.
Mattis’s acquiescence to Patterson’s withdrawal came after he fought and won a major battle with the White House to remove Iraq from the list of majority-Muslim countries whose citizens are barred from U.S. entry under Trump’s executive order on immigration.
Although he reportedly insisted that he be able to select his own team when he accepted Trump’s offer to head the Defense Department, Mattis has skirmished repeatedly with the White House over appointments. His initial choice for deputy secretary, Michèle Flournoy, withdrew from consideration after meetings with White House officials. Flournoy served as the department’s undersecretary in the Obama administration.
The current defense deputy, Robert Work, is an Obama holdover who has agreed to remain in office until his successor is in place. The deputy slot remains vacant at the State Department, where Secretary Rex Tillerson’s reported choice, Elliott Abrams, was rejected by the White House because of comments he made during the campaign that were perceived to oppose Trump.
Patterson retired from the State Department in December as assistant secretary for Near East affairs, the top official on the Middle East, with the highest rank, career ambassador. She also served as ambassador to Pakistan, Colombia and El Salvador.
But it was primarily her service in Egypt, as the public face of Obama’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood-backed government of then-President Mohamed Morsi, that led to her rejection by the White House, officials said.
Morsi was ousted by the Egyptian military in 2013, leading to strained relations between the Obama administration and Egypt under the installed president, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
Although Patterson was said to be supported by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) and was seen as likely to have garnered a majority of votes from Republicans and Democrats, the Trump administration has voiced strong support for Sissi as a strong counterterrorism ally and largely dismissed criticism of his repression of human and civil rights.
While the administration has denounced the Muslim Brotherhood, its plans to issue an executive order designating it a terrorist organization appear to have fallen at least temporarily by the wayside as a number of Middle East experts and U.S. allies in the region have warned against such a step.
A Sunni Muslim organization founded in Egypt early last century, the Brotherhood is now a widespread, loosely organized religious and social movement across the Arab world. While current governments in some countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, consider its adherents terrorists, its chapters operate openly, in some cases with members holding elective office, in countries such as Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan.
The Brotherhood has been a longtime target of the U.S. far right. Cruz recently reintroduced legislation calling on the State Department to consider a terrorist designation and saying that the Brotherhood espouses “a violent Islamist ideology with a mission of destroying the West.”
Cotton, who has compared the Brotherhood to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, has called on Muslims around the world to lead a reform movement to reject the organization.
A number of Muslim groups, however, have said the real aim of the proposed legislation is to allow the U.S. government to target American Muslims.
The Defense Department declined to comment on the withdrawal of Patterson. A White House spokesman said, “Typically, we do not comment on personnel matters.”
A spokeswoman for Cotton said that his opposition to the nomination was less about Patterson’s time as ambassador to Egypt than about “her lack of DOD-specific experience.” The undersecretary job has frequently been filled by diplomats and nonmilitary figures in both Republican and Democratic administrations.