WASHINGTON ― Colin Kahl, a former Obama-era aide nominated for the Pentagon’s top policy job, faced sharp questioning over his harsh criticism of Republicans on social media during his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday.
Republican lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee also pressed Kahl to address his position on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and his public disapproval of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy actions. Kahl currently works at Stanford University, and he previously served as a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden.
Though Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, have each announced their opposition to the nomination, it was not obvious Republicans had the key elements they would need to derail the nomination in the evenly split Senate: GOP unity and defections from Democratic lawmakers.
The panel’s influential top Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, expressed frustration that a positive characterization of his private call with Kahl last week had leaked to the press, and the senator said Kahl’s “hyper-partisanship” didn’t fit the job’s requirement for “a leader with judicious temperament and sound judgment.”
But Inhofe stopped short of announcing he would oppose Kahl. “On our call, I told you I would have a hard time supporting your nomination because of your previous policy positions unless you’ve learned from some of the mistakes that you’ve made. I also told you that I can work with people with whom I disagree,” Inhofe said.
Complicating Kahl’s hearing, Cotton quoted several of Kahl’s tweets showing “intemperate manner.” According to Kahl, Republicans who defended Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in 2019 “debase themselves at the alter of Trump — they are the party of ethnic cleansing,” and Republicans who upheld Trump’s veto in favor of Saudi arms sales “share ownership of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” in Yemen.
Likewise, Ernst pointed to Kahl’s tweet in 2018 that said “we are all going to die” if the White House replaced H.R. McMaster as national security adviser with John Bolton. American troops “deserve someone that will take a serious outlook to policy and not put this kind of garbage out in front of the American public,” she said.
During the hearing, Kahl apologized for his “sometimes disrespectful” language, saying he strongly opposed some of Trump’s positions and got swept up during the polarizing politics of the last several years. Kahl said he previously put aside politics to serve under two Republican defense secretaries and that he understands the nonpartisan nature of the policy job.
“No party has a monopoly on on good ideas; none of us have cracked the code on some of the toughest challenges we face, whether it be Iran or North Korea or China or Russia,” he said. “I know that there are disagreements, but I am also confident that I can work with people that I disagree with both inside the Pentagon and here in the halls of Congress if I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed.”
Looming over the hearing was the White House’s decision this week to drop Neera Tanden as nominee for Biden’s budget director. Centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin joined Republican opposition, citing Tanden’s past tweets criticizing politicians across the spectrum. (Manchin, a SASC member, wasn’t present at Kahl’s hearing.)
Several Republicans drew a comparison to Trump’s nomination of retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata to the Pentagon’s top policy post, which the White House withdrew after Tata’s conspiratorial, anti-Muslim and harshly partisan remarks caused Democrats to oppose him and several Republicans to waiver.
“Dr. Kahl, I think a lot of us are trying to figure out a critical issue,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. “Are you a balanced, measured national security professional who can help lead the Pentagon? Or, to be a little bit more frank, are you a political hack who has a history of going off on Twitter by attacking those who don’t share your politics?”
Sen. Maizie Hirono, D-Hawaii, was among Democratic lawmakers who hit back in Kahl’s defense. “That kind of criticism, regarding tweets, from folks who didn’t say anything about the lying, racist tweets from the former president, I think, is pretty rich,” she said.
A day after members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilled Biden’s nominee for deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, over her role as the chief negotiator for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, SASC Republicans also vented skepticism Thursday at Kahl for his advocacy.
The debate came as the Biden administration’s early efforts to resurrect the deal have stalled, and Washington remains hotly divided over Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal in 2018 to pursue a “maximum pressure” campaign.
Under questioning, Kahl said it was possible to conduct a two-track approach, both protecting troops in the region from Iranian proxies while conducting diplomacy. While at the Pentagon in 2011, he was a “strong proponent” for going after Iranian proxies over their rocket attacks on American troops, he said.
Placating hawks, Kahl said sanctions shouldn’t be lifted until Iran returns to compliance with the deal and that the U.S. must address Iran’s conventional weapons. But he stood by criticism that the maximum pressure campaign will provoke Iran to accelerate its nuclear program and launch more attacks on U.S. forces, which have happened.
“I do know that, unfortunately, as we’ve reimposed sanctions as a part of the maximum pressure campaign, it hasn’t had the effect of drying up Iranian resources for its support for its missile program, its conventional weaponry, its support for terrorism,” Kahl said. “So I think we need to address the nuclear program and address these other destabilizing activities.”
Republicans also quizzed Kahl on a hot-button acquisitions program, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent ― the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile replacement awarded to Northrop Grumman last year. Some Democrats are agitating against the program, which would cost about $264 billion over its life span, and questioning whether the country should retain the ground leg of its nuclear triad.
In several exchanges, Republicans sought a commitment from Kahl in favor of fully funding the GBSD, but he declined, saying he isn’t privy to the latest classified assessments of the program because he hasn’t served in government for four years. He did say he believes in the triad itself.
“There’s nothing more important to our national survival and ensuring that we have a safe, secure and effective nuclear deterrent. I think our modernization efforts are essential in that area, not only as it relates to the three legs of the triad, but to nuclear command-and-control systems,” he told Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.C. “My personal position is that the triad remains a critical hedge against the possibility that technological modernization by our adversaries could call into question the survivability of any one leg of the triad.”
In the final minutes of the hearing, Cotton returned to the line of questioning. But when Kahl promised to “dig into the details” and pick up the discussion with any interested lawmakers afterward, Cotton suggested this was a red flag.
“I will take that unwillingness to give a straight answer as that you probably don’t think that we should continue to fund the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, as do many other members of your party, and suspect many members of this committee will too,” Cotton said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.