Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren sharply criticized Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday after the administration installed an embattled nominee in a senior Pentagon post amid opposition on Capitol Hill, accusing the Pentagon chief of doing President Donald Trump’s “dirty work.”
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata’s nomination to be undersecretary of defense for policy was upended on Thursday when the Senate Armed Services Committee canceled his confirmation hearing minutes before it was set to begin. Tata has come under fire in recent months for derogatory statements about Muslims and prominent Democratic politicians.
In the latest bizarre twist, Tata abruptly withdrew from consideration for the undersecretary role and has instead been designated as the official “performing the duties of” the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, the Pentagon said late Sunday. James Anderson, who was confirmed as deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, is currently serving in the No. 1 job on an acting basis.
The White House formally withdrew Tata’s nomination for undersecretary on Monday.
Warren on Monday condemned the decision to install Tata in the Pentagon without Senate consent.
“I demanded Anthony Tata withdraw his nomination to be the Pentagon’s #3 official because he’s an Islamophobic conspiracy theorist who is totally unqualified,” Warren tweeted. “@EsperDoD put him in the job anyway. Shame on you, Mr. Secretary.”
A defense official pointed out that Warren’s comments are not accurate: “Mr. Tata was not placed into the same position he was previously nominated to,” but rather the no. 2 policy position, the official said.
“Her ire appears to be misinformed/misdirected,” the official said in an email.
Warren also slammed Senate Armed Services Chair Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who she also argued “did Trump’s dirty work” alongside Esper.
“Tata still has a job at the Pentagon today not in spite of his repugnant statements, but because of them,” she added in a second tweet. “@JimInhofe & @EsperDoD did Trump’s dirty work to avoid an embarrassing hearing and bypass the Senate. Their blind loyalty to Trump puts our national security at risk.”
Inhofe defended Trump’s authority to name officials to temporarily fill Pentagon vacancies in a statement Monday, though the Oklahoma Republican didn’t mention Tata by name.
“While I have always stressed the need to have Senate-confirmed leadership in top Pentagon positions, I believe it is within the President’s authority to appoint DoD officials when and as appropriate,” Inhofe said. “These are clearly critical positions within the Department where a full bench is needed.”
Inhofe, a staunch Trump ally, spoke to the president the night before Tata’s confirmation hearing and said the pair agreed the meeting shouldn’t go forward as Democrats and Republicans “didn’t know enough about” the embattled nominee.
A spokesperson added the Armed Services Committee hasn’t yet received a formal notification of Tata’s withdrawal.
Experts speculated Sunday that giving Tata the temporary post was a strategy to pave the way for Trump to ultimately install him in the top job he was nominated for on an acting basis despite failing to obtain Senate confirmation. An exception to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act permits the promotion of a “first assistant” after 90 days. However, a defense official with knowledge of the law told POLITICO Monday that such a workaround would not be legal.
“The Vacancies Act does not apply here,” the official said, noting that the law only applies to officials designated as “acting.”
However, the official acknowledged that in his role as the official “performing the duties of” deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, Tata “substantively” has all the authorities of the post.
Meanwhile, by law Anderson must step down 210 days — or seven months — after Trump officially withdraws Tata’s nomination for the role, the official said. However, that clock stops if Trump sends a new nomination to the Senate.
Under a different exception to the law, the White House could install Tata as the “acting” official to a DoD post that became vacant starting July 26 — 90 days after Tata began serving as a senior adviser to Esper.
But the options for Tata going forward are limited, the official stressed.
“He is not first assistant; he is not acting; he is not in the order of succession to the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy or in the order of succession to be the Secretary of Defense,” the official said.
Senate Democrats opposed Tata over a raft of inflammatory statements on Twitter, including once calling former President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader.”
Warren, a progressive Democrat and Trump critic, previously penned a letter with nine other Senate Democrats calling on Tata to withdraw his nomination and resign from the Pentagon ahead of a confirmation hearing, arguing his comments disqualified him from the top post.
Senate Armed Services Democrats, who appear to have little recourse in the move, dinged Trump on Monday for circumventing the confirmation process to approve his senior personnel picks.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) demanded the White House removed Tata from the post, arguing Trump loyalist would be “a danger in any senior leadership position.”
“This is yet another example of Trump’s politicization of the military — inserting loyalists who would fail to get Senate confirmation into positions that they are not qualified for,” Duckworth said. “It’s a deeply offensive move that will have dangerous downstream effects on the lives of servicemembers and their families.”
“For President Trump to circumvent the Senate confirmation process in order to insert Tata into this position is a disgrace to our armed services and defense community and an unacceptable dismissal of the Senate’s role,” added Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia added that the failure of Tata’s nomination amid concerns from both parties show the top policy job “should be carried out by a nominee that the Senate can agree on.”