Updated 8/3/20 at 9:41 AM EST with comment from Reed.
WASHINGTON — The Defense Department announced Sunday evening that controversial nominee Anthony Tata has been appointed to fill the Pentagon’s No. 2 policy job, in a move that some members of Congress see as circumventing the Senate’s confirmation process.
The move came just days after the Senate Armed Services Committee scrapped a confirmation hearing for Tata, a retired Army brigadier general and Fox News guest who has been a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, after there was not enough support among Republican senators to push his nomination through.
Tata was originally nominated as undersecretary of defense for policy, the top foreign relations and policy job in the building. Now, he will be performing the duties of the deputy undersecretary for policy.
“Mr. Tata withdrew from consideration before the Senate Armed Services Committee his nomination to be the undersecretary of defense for policy,” according to a department spokesman. “He has been designated as the official performing the duties of the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, reporting to the Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Dr. James Anderson. He looks forward to continuing to help implement the president’s national security agenda.”
Anderson is the officially confirmed deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, having been cleared by the Senate in early June. However, as there is no current undersecretary for policy, Anderson is serving as the acting in that capacity — meaning that the deputy role is open for Tata to slide into.
Roughly 15 minutes before a scheduled SASC hearing Thursday for Tata, committee chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., announced a delay, saying there were “many Democrats and Republicans who didn’t know enough about Anthony Tata to consider him for a very significant position at this time.”
Inhofe has had to navigate the White House’s refusal to budge on Tata for weeks, even after CNN reported Tata called Obama “a terrorist leader,” and called Islam “the most oppressive violent religion that I know of.”
In addition, Tata retired from the military in 2009 after an Army inquiry found that he conducted “at least two” adulterous affairs while serving, considered a crime by the military.
In June, Tata apologized to the Senate for his offensive remarks, saying he “deeply regretted” them, and had a closed-door session with the committee on Tuesday to try and smooth over concerns. But sources say that Tata, who was unanimously opposed by Democrats on the committee, could not muster enough support from members of his own party to move forward.
Of the 60 Senate-confirmed roles at the Pentagon, at least 18 are being filled by officials in an acting capacity. Tata becomes the second official to be appointed to an acting role, bypassing the need for Senate confirmation, from outside the department this month. On July 13, White House Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios was named acting undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.
Rep. Adam Smith, the Democrat from Washington state who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Sunday that, “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.”
On Monday, Sen. Jack Reed, D-RI., the ranking member on the SASC, issued a blistering statement, calling the Tata move “an insult to our troops, professionals at the Pentagon, the Senate, and the American people” that represents “a flagrant end run around the confirmation process.”
“If President Trump’s goal is to hollow out, politicize, and undermine the Pentagon the way he has the State Department and Intelligence Community, then mission accomplished. This is an offensive, destabilizing move and General Tata should not be appointed to a Senate-confirmed position,” Reed said. ““The American people must not grow numb to the dizzying dysfunction of this Administration and the Senate should not allow moves like this to go unchecked.”
But ultimately, Congress has few options to respond. The president has the right to appoint acting officials to open spots, and so Tata is effectively safe as long as Trump is willing to keep him in the job.
However, the move does come ahead of a week when eight defense nominees were set to have their hearings before the SASC. The Senate has in the past held up nominees as a way to express disapproval with White House actions or force changes to Pentagon policy.
On Tuesday, a hearing is scheduled for John Whitley to be CAPE director, Shon Manasco to be Air Force under secretary; Michele Pearce to be Army general counsel and Liam Hardy to be a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. That is followed Thursday by a hearing for Jason Abend to be the department inspector general; Bradley Hansell to be deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence; Lucas Polakowski to be assistant secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological defense): and Louis Bremer to be assistant secretary for special operations/low intensity conflict.
Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.