President Trump has appointed Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Tony Tata to a senior policy role at the Pentagon, after Senate Democrats and some Senate Republicans fought his nomination to the top Pentagon policy job.
Trump appointed Tata as acting deputy under secretary of defense for policy over the weekend, according to two sources close to the White House. Under arcane Pentagon rules, Tata is officially “performing the duties of” the role, versus “acting,” but they are essentially the same.
The move puts Tata, a Trump loyalist, in an important policy role at the Pentagon. Trump had initially nominated Tata to become the under secretary of defense for policy — the number three position at the Pentagon, and the person in charge of Pentagon policy.
However, after Senate Democrats opposed his nomination, along with a couple of Senate Republicans, the president withdrew the nomination and instead appointed him to the deputy role.
Senate Democrats have cited several controversial tweets Tata made several years ago that mocked former President Obama and Muslims.
First unearthed by CNN, Tata’s tweets (most of which appear to be part of an argument with another Twitter user) call Islam the “most oppressive violent religion I know of” and claim Obama was a “terrorist leader.” Tata has apologized for the tweets.
Senate Democrats were also nervous that if Tata were confirmed as under secretary of defense for policy, he would replace current Defense Secretary Mark Esper, according to Defense News.
Several Senate Republicans were also allegedly nervous about Tata, such as Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, who is facing a tough re-election fight.
A confirmation hearing for the retired brigadier general was scheduled for Thursday, but canceled at the last minute by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a strong Trump ally who supported Tata’s nomination.
Tata’s appointment as acting deputy secretary of defense for policy puts him at the table on policy, in a building that has been resistant to Trump’s presidency.
Tata was unable to be appointed to the top policy position directly, due to a provision of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act that bars him from being named in an acting role for a position he was nominated for, unless he has served for 90 days in the deputy position.
Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appointed the person currently serving in the top policy role, Marine veteran James Anderson.
Anderson served as assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities until being tasked by Esper in June 2020 as the acting under secretary of defense for policy to replace John Rood, a Never Trumper.
Mattis had unsuccessfully sought to appoint Democrats in top policy positions, but succeeded in putting in a number of Never Trumpers in those positions. Earlier this year, that began to change, after the president put Johnny McEntee in charge of White House hiring and personnel. After that move, a number of Never Trumpers left the Pentagon or were pushed out, and Trump loyalists made their way in.
The House and Senate Armed Services Committees, as bodies that provide oversight of the Pentagon, work very closely with defense officials on appointments and many other matters.
Top Democrats on the committees issued angry statements after the news of Tata’s appointment broke late on Sunday.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) said in a statement:
Our system of checks and balances exists for a reason and the Senate’s role in the confirmation process for administration appointees ensures individuals at the highest levels of government are highly qualified. If an appointee cannot gain the support of the Senate, as is clearly the case with Tata, then the President should not put that person into an identical temporary role. This evasion of scrutiny makes our government less accountable and prioritizes loyalty over competence.
Sen. Jack Reed (RI), the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the appointment “offensive” and “destabilizing”:
If Pres Trump’s goal is to hollow out, politicize, & undermine DoD the way he has the State Dept & Intel Community, then mission accomplished. This is an offensive, destabilizing move & Gen Tata should not be appointed to a Senate-confirmed position. https://t.co/mz92pV4RB8
— Senator Jack Reed (@SenJackReed) August 3, 2020
Tata is a successful novelist, and as Breitbart News reported in June, took a job in the public education sector after retiring from the Army to improve minority access to education instead of working in a lucrative defense contractor gig, as many generals do after retirement.
Tata served 28 years in the U.S. Army, including as the deputy commanding general of 25,000 troops in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2007. He supports withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan — a position that has put him at odds with many in the Pentagon and in the foreign policy establishment.
Retired CIA paramilitary officer Ronald Moeller, who served as the CIA’s chief at Bagram Air Base in 2006, remembers being ambushed with Tata by the Taliban during a Christmas visit with troops in the Korengal Valley in 2007.
“It looked like the Fourth of July: [rocket propelled grenades] criss-crossing the sky, tracer fire every which way let loose. I and Tata’s aide pushed Tata out of the helicopter and he made a very good [parachute landing fall] on the ground,” Moeller said.
“You could hear the ‘ding ding ding’ of the bullets impacting the helicopter,” he said.
Moeller said he and Tata’s aide had to restrain him a couple of times because wanted to join the fight, armed only with a Beretta M9 pistol.
“He’s a paratrooper, so I get that,” Moeller said.
He said although he was just a civilian, Tata took time to listen to him and ask questions.
“He has a great ability to listen to others, and to make intelligent decisions based on all the input he’s given,” Moeller said, adding that he also wanted contrary opinions and is not afraid to go against groupthink.
Moeller said Tata also knows how to get things done. When people were moving slowly, he said, “You always want to be behind and beside him because you didn’t want to be in front of the blast. That’s the paratrooper in him.”