This story was updated July 31, 2020.
WASHINGTON ― The Senate on Thursday abruptly canceled a confirmation hearing for Anthony Tata, President Donald Trump’s pick for the Pentagon’s top policy job, following stiff opposition to the nomination from Democrats and wavering by some Republicans. No new hearing date was announced.
Tata faced opposition from Democrats and some Republicans, who felt his his conspiratorial, anti-Muslim and harshly partisan remarks ― which Tata renounced last month ― were incompatible with the job of undersecretary of defense for policy, which leads policy development and defense relationships with allies.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said Thursday he and Trump agreed on the eve of Tata’s confirmation hearing to at least delay the nomination. Inhofe has had to navigate the White House’s refusal to budge on Tata for weeks, even after CNN reported Tata called President Barack Obama “a terrorist leader,” and called Islam “the most oppressive violent religion that I know of.”
“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, R-Okla., said in a 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.”
A Fox News guest, staunch ally of the president and retired Army brigadier general, Tata was nominated for the policy position at the Pentagon, where he has been serving as a senior adviser.
Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters late Thursday that Tata will remain an aide to Defense Secretary Mark Esper while the committee settles on a plan to grant him a hearing. And on Friday, White Houses press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said: “The president still supports Gen. Tata.”
However, a source with knowledge of the situation told Defense News on Friday that Tata is expected to withdraw his nomination in the coming days. CNN reported that the Senate Armed Services Committee was advised late Wednesday the withdrawal was likely.
In any case, it was apparent before Thursday’s hearing was canceled, Senate sources said, that Tata would have had problems in a Senate floor vote on his confirmation and that he lacked the votes in committee.
Some of the discomfort on the panel was fueled by a belief Trump would seek to have Tata, if confirmed, replace Esper. “It’s no state secret the president is unhappy with Esper and that, if Tata’s confirmed by the Senate, Trump would slide him in as secretary of defense,” a Senate Democratic aide said.
On Tuesday, the same day as a closed-door SASC hearing on Tata, the Washington Post reported that Republicans were expressing doubts they could support him, including panel members Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.
“You know, I’m still vetting him, but I can’t say that I would be optimistic,” Ernst told the newspaper. Ernst added that she has heard “comments from Iowans who are now retired but have worked with him,” and that she values their feedback.
“I’ve been visiting with him and I’m getting more comfortable with that, but we’ll have an opportunity at a hearing,” Cramer told the newspaper. “We’ll see after that, how the hearing goes.”
Cramer used Tata’s nomination to vent unrelated frustration over the Pentagon’s opposition to adding the names of 74 sailors who died aboard the U.S.S. Frank Evans to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
SASC Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., and other Democrats on the panel have come out against the nomination, but it was an open question whether Ernst and other SASC Republicans in tough reelection campaigns, like Sens. Thom Tillis and Martha McSally, would vote to confirm Tata.
“It’s fair to say members on both sides of the aisle have raised serious questions about this nominee,” Reed said in a statement Thursday. “We had a closed door session on Tuesday and today’s public hearing has now been cancelled. Chairman Inhofe did the right thing here, and it’s clear this nomination isn’t going anywhere without a full, fair, open hearing.”
Backing Tata would mean defending a presidential pick whose public statements have evinced intolerance to Islam at a time when the military and the rest of the country is reckoning with America’s painful legacy of discrimination. (In June, Tata apologized to the Senate for his offensive remarks, saying he “deeply regretted” them.)
Democrats, in a letter this week, called on Tata to withdraw and resign from his Pentagon job. Signatories included SASC members Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Tammy Duckworth. D-Ill., among others.
“Nominees should see the value diversity, inclusion, and unity bring to our institutions. Unfortunately, your history of public remarks does not meet this standard,” the lawmakers said in the letter.
Before Thursday’s open hearing, the panel first met July 28 to consider Tata’s nomination in a closed session, a move typically used to review confidential investigative materials. Tata retired from the military in 2009 after an Army inquiry found that he conducted “at least two” adulterous affairs while serving, considered a crime by the military.
The closed hearing was the panel’s first for a nominee since Gen. John Hyten was considered for vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff amid sexual misconduct allegations. The panel heard from Hyten and others in closed session and advanced him to Senate confirmation, after an Air Force probe found insufficient evidence to file charges.
On Wednesday, civil rights groups held a press conference to call on the Senate to block Tata, calling him an, “anti-Muslim, anti-Black internet troll” for his inflammatory comments and tweets.
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.