Thought Leadership

Foreign Policy: Top Trump Defense Pick Shows Up at Pentagon Before Senate Confirmation

May 15, 2020

TPG in the News

In a move that could raise questions in Congress, Trump loyalist Anthony Tata has been asked to sit in on meetings prior to his expected nomination to a senior Pentagon post.


U.S. President Donald Trump’s presumptive choice to be the Defense Department’s top policy official is already serving inside the Pentagon as a senior advisor to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, four sources familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy, a move that could raise eyebrows in Congress ahead of what’s expected to be a difficult confirmation process.

Anthony Tata, a Fox News commentator and Trump loyalist who is facing questions over his potential nomination to be the undersecretary of defense for policy related to perceived Islamophobic comments and falsifying a court document to defend himself against past adultery claims, is apparently getting up to speed on the Pentagon. The onetime U.S. Army brigadier general has not been involved in Defense Department policy since Army investigators concluded in 2007 he had at least two extramarital affairs during a previous marriage, prompting his early retirement. 

Tata was recently asked to sit in on meetings as the incoming policy chief with acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Anderson’s approval, three of the sources said, which could raise concerns in the Senate, as nominees are not supposed to take any action to presume confirmation for the role. The White House has not yet sent Tata’s nomination to Congress, nor has it announced any intent to deliver the nomination. 

But a defense official who spoke to Foreign Policy denied that Tata is sitting in on official meetings in anticipation of his new role. Tata serves as a noncareer member of the senior executive service and as senior advisor to Esper, the official said. It is not clear when Tata entered the Pentagon in this capacity.

“There is no validity to reports of him sitting in on official meetings inside Policy as an acting [undersecretary of defense for policy] or in anticipation of a potential nomination,” the official said, indicating that Tata is in the Pentagon as a secretarial Schedule C appointment, a lower-level civilian appointment that does not require Senate confirmation.  

It is not necessarily unusual for presidential appointees to get a look inside the agencies where they will be charged with leadership roles within a very limited scope. Nor is it unusual for administrations to rely on acting officials to cover gaps in senior appointments, particularly during personnel shifts at the beginning and end of administrations. 

Trump has also stated his preference for having acting officials in top roles. “I like ‘acting’ because I can move so quickly,” he told CBS’s Face the Nation in 2019. “It gives me more flexibility.”

But Democratic lawmakers have grown concerned with Trump’s practice of keeping so many acting appointees in place for so long. Congressional aides say they are also uncomfortable with the administration’s pattern of installing presumptive nominees for senior appointments in the agencies in stopgap roles before they are put before the Senate for confirmation hearings. They say by doing so, the Trump administration is maneuvering around Congress’s constitutionally required confirmation process. 

“The administration has played loose with the vacancies act and acting positions,” said one Democratic congressional aide. 

“It is considered very arrogant,” a former senior Trump administration official told Foreign Policy. “And it will not go over well even if [Tata] was a good nominee with the Senate.”

During the Obama administration, senior Pentagon personnel official Brad Carson got a harsh hearing on Capitol Hill and eventually resigned after pushing ahead with major changes to the military personnel system while serving as acting undersecretary for defense for personnel and readiness, which some senators saw as presuming confirmation for the job to which he was nominated. 

Richard Grenell, Trump’s acting head of intelligence, has also faced harsh criticism from lawmakers for approving sweeping changes to the 17-agency intelligence community, while leaving Capitol Hill in the dark on the moves.

However, nominees in the Defense Department are typically given “rules of the road” for actions that they can and cannot perform by the agency’s general counsel, said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine major general and a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who added that nominees who are not full-time government employees can come in under temporary legal status.

While a nominee can prepare for confirmation at the Pentagon, they are not allowed to perform actions that would appear to be presuming confirmation, such as influencing policy or getting involved in personnel decisions. But Punaro told Foreign Policy that the Defense Department has a good track record of self-policing red lines for nominees and that missteps are relatively rare. 

“The people in the department are very savvy about this,” Punaro said. “If there’s a nominee and they’re throwing their weight around, someone will call the [congressional] committee and rat them out.” 

There are currently 20 vacancies among senior Senate-confirmed positions at the Pentagon. Three candidates, including Kenneth Braithwaite, Trump’s pick to be secretary of the navy, and James Anderson, who would serve as Tata’s deputy if both are confirmed, have attended Senate hearings and are awaiting a confirmation vote.  

But the Trump administration has recently gotten in trouble with Congress over interpretations of federal law that would give the executive branch the ability to keep acting officials in power beyond legal norms, worrying aides and former officials who think the White House may be playing fast and loose with the rules. 

Of 753 senior administration posts that require a presidential nomination and Senate confirmation, 138 have no nominees, according to data from the Washington Post. At the Department of Homeland Security, for example, nine of the most senior positions are held by acting officials, including the agency’s chief, Chad Wolf, who has held the job for six months without a confirmation hearing.

Earlier this month, Democratic Rep. Katie Porter introduced a bill aimed at cracking down on unconfirmed agency officials in response to the Trump administration’s high number of vacancies and acting appointments.

The bill would limit the number of days someone could serve as an acting agency head from 120 to 60 days, require congressional testimony from acting officials every 60 days, and close other loopholes. 

A recent Columbia Law Review study by Stanford University professor Anne Joseph O’Connell found that, while prior administrations relied heavily on acting officials at the start and end of their administrations, Trump is the only president in the past four decades to rely on more acting cabinet secretaries than confirmed acting secretaries. 

Tata’s potential nomination has come alongside a push to install more Trump loyalists at higher levels of the Pentagon. Foreign Policy reported earlier this month that Trump appointed Michael Cutrone to a behind-the-scenes Pentagon role to vet officials for loyalty to the administration.

Specifically, the White House is prioritizing bringing in agency leaders who support providing more Pentagon money to build Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico, withdrawing U.S. troops rapidly from Syria and Afghanistan, and a implementing a more aggressive offensive posture against Iran, according to a former senior administration official. 

There is increasing concern inside the Defense Department and Congress that Tata, who retired from the military amid an adultery complaint in 2007, would face a turbulent confirmation process, even with Republicans in control of the Senate. Tata did not deny the complaints at the time, which included three extramarital affairs and a child born out of wedlock.

An Army investigation that found Tata committed adultery with at least two women  in a previous marriage also discovered that the general forged a Georgia court order claiming that his ex-wife knowingly charged him with unfair medical bills, the News & Observer reported.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights advocacy group based in Washington, papered the Senate Armed Services Committee with emails earlier this month urging the Senate to reject Tata’s reported nomination, saying that a spy novel written by the former general last year falsely claimed that Muslim men in the United Kingdom engage in the gang-rape of women as part of their ceremonial transition to manhood, and that the act is covered up by the government.

The organization, also known as CAIR, plans to organize progressive lawmakers around a pressure campaign to push the Senate to reject the nomination if it advances. “Again you have another anti-Muslim wannabe official trying to get into the Trump administration to bolster his anti-immigration agenda,” Robert McCaw, CAIR’s government affairs director, told Foreign Policy. “We’re really hoping right now through raising this nomination publicly we can spoil [it].”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Article copyright Foreign Policy.


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