Pentagon nominee tries to walk back record of online radicalism

Trump's choice for a top Pentagon post, among other things, condemned Obama as a "terrorist leader." Now he wants senators to believe he didn't mean it.
This picture taken 26 December 2011 show
An aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington on Dec. 26, 2011.AFP - Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

Anthony Tata seems to realize he has a political problem. Donald Trump recently tapped the retired Army brigadier general -- and Fox News regular -- to serve as the Pentagon's top policy official, but Tata's nomination faced swift opposition when his record of online radicalism emerged. Foreign Policy reported yesterday that Tata is scrambling.

In a letter obtained by Foreign Policy that was sent to Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, and Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, the chairman and ranking member on the Senate Armed Services committee, Tata said he had come to "deeply regret" the tweets and called them an "aberration in a four-decade thread of faithful public service."

"I have a strong record of inclusivity and bipartisanship in my commentary. However, I did misspeak in 2018 on Twitter in hyperbolic conversations," Tata wrote. "There is no excuse for those comments, for which I take complete responsibility and also fully retract and denounce."

He added in the margin, "Gentlemen -- I hope you will be able to judge me on my entire 30+ year career and record of achievement and not a few regrettable tweets I fully denounce."

For those who may need a recap, let's review how we arrived at this point.

In February, as part of a post-impeachment loyalty purge, Trump ousted John Rood as the undersecretary of defense for policy. The president soon after settled on Tata, whom he'd seen on Fox News, as Rood's successor.

CNN recently highlighted elements of the retired general's record, which suggested he was an unwise choice.

In several tweets from 2018, Tata said that Islam was the "most oppressive violent religion I know of" and claimed Obama was a "terrorist leader" who did more to harm the US "and help Islamic countries than any president in history." ... Tata, in one radio appearance, speculated the Iran deal was born out of Obama's "Islamic roots" in an attempt "to help Iranians and the greater Islamic state crush Israel."

Two years ago, promoting an op-ed in a conservative newspaper, Tata also published a tweet that read, "Never a doubt. Among dozens of clues, Obama supported Russian meddling in 2016 election & influenced Israeli elections to try to oust Netanyahu & help Hamas & Muslim brotherhood U.S. really did have Manchurian Candidate in White House - Washington Times."

Whether the White House failed to vet Tata, or chose him because of unhinged missives, is unclear.

Not surprisingly, given these crackpot ideas, more than a few Senate Democrats have said there's simply no way they can support his nomination. They weren't alone: former U.S. Central Command chief, retired Gen. Joseph Votel, and a former U.S. Special Operations Command chief, retired Gen. Tony Thomas, both announced last week that they could not support Tata's nomination to the Pentagon post.

It's worth emphasizing that the position in question is not some random, unknown bureaucrat with limited influence. On the contrary, the president chose Tata to serve as the #3 highest ranking civilian at the Pentagon. As the original CNN report on Tata's record noted, the under secretary of defense for policy is responsible for "overseeing the Defense Department's policy shop, including its national security and defense strategy, nuclear deterrence and missile defense policy, and security cooperation plans and policies. The policy chief also closely advises the secretary of defense on national security and supports the Department of Defense's program and budget decisions."

Prior to Trump's presidency, one would have expected the White House to choose a measured, qualified official, not a conspiracy theorist the president saw on conservative television shows.

It's entirely possible, however, that GOP senators will support Tata anyway, and if they do, there won't be anything the Senate Democratic minority can do about it. Watch this space.