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Retired generals pull support for former Wake schools, NCDOT chief for Defense job after offensive tweets uncovered

Posted June 18, 2020 6:16 p.m. EDT
Updated June 18, 2020 7:20 p.m. EDT

At least two retired Army generals have pulled their support for President Donald Trump's nominee to oversee the Pentagon's policy shop after CNN's KFile reported last week that he has a history of making Islamophobic and inflammatory remarks against prominent Democratic politicians, including falsely calling former President Barack Obama a Muslim.

— At least two retired Army generals have pulled their support for President Donald Trump's nominee to oversee the Pentagon's policy shop after CNN's KFile reported last week that he has a history of making Islamophobic and inflammatory remarks against prominent Democratic politicians, including falsely calling former President Barack Obama a Muslim.

Gen. Joseph Votel and Gen. Tony Thomas had both signed a letter of support for retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, a frequent guest on Fox News and ardent defender of the President, to become the third highest official at the Pentagon before news of his controversial comments surfaced, according to a draft copy obtained by CNN.

Now, both generals say they can no longer back Tata for the job.

"I originally signed the letter so I supported his nomination but the newly gained knowledge of these tweets makes it impossible to continue my support," Votel, a former commander of US Central Command and Special Operations Command, told CNN Thursday.

Thomas, who is also a former SOCOM commander, expressed a similar view.

"I supported him when he reached out but found out about the tweets much later and I no longer support him," he said.

The Wall Street Journal first reported that the generals had withdrawn their support for Tata, a former superintendent of the Wake County Public School System and former secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The letter signed by Votel, Thomas and more than 30 former senior military officers, former State Department personnel and other former national security officials, is dated May 29, roughly two weeks before CNN reported on several conspiratorial and Islamophobic social media posts from Tata's past. It is addressed to the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will ultimately decide if Tata's nomination process moves forward.

"While we may differ in outlook and on matters of policy or law on which we focus, we write today with one voice, in united support of the nomination of Brigadier General Anthony J. Tata (U.S. Army, Retired) as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy," it reads.

"Throughout his decades of distinguished public service, Tony has earned widespread respect for his capable leadership, unwavering dedication and professionalism, calm demeanor, quick intelligence, and bipartisan solutions-oriented approach. We believe he is the right person at the right time for what is always a very critical post, but perhaps never more critical than now," the letter adds.

However, some of that support has eroded after several of Tata's previous controversial comments were unearthed by CNN.

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." Following the publication of the story, Tata deleted several of his tweets, screenshots of which were captured by CNN's KFile.

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."

He also lashed out at prominent Democratic politicians and the media on Twitter, such as California Reps. Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi, who he said "have always been the same violent extremists." In another tweet, Tata called Waters a "vicious race baiting racist." He used a hashtag in a different tweet that insinuated CNN anchor Don Lemon was on "the liberal plantation."

If confirmed by the Senate, Tata would oversee 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.

But the prospects of that happening took a serious hit after CNN's report last week, as several Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee took the rare step of voicing opposition to Tata's nomination prior to a confirmation hearing.

The panel's chairman, Sen. James Inhofe, told CNN on Tuesday that reports about Tata's controversial comments "got our attention."

"I've heard the same thing you've heard and for that reason we're going to make a decision," the Oklahoma Republican told CNN when asked what his plans were for moving forward with the confirmation process and hearings for Tata.

"I don't want to say it disqualifies him and we're not going to consider him, but I'm saying that got our attention," he said.

Senior officials hope his nomination will be pulled

Several defense officials tell CNN that senior officials at the Pentagon are hopeful that his nomination will be pulled and no confirmation hearing takes place. Officials are banking on Inhofe telling the White House the nomination cannot go forward.

For his part, Tata is "regretful" for the tweets, according to a source familiar with his thinking. The embattled nominee also hopes to have the opportunity to discuss the matter with senators and emphasize his desire to focus on several of the major military challenges currently facing the US, the source said.

Some of the former military and national security officials listed who signed the letter of support told CNN Thursday that they were concerned by reports about Tata's comments but did not say whether they still support his nomination.

One of those individuals was retired four-star Gen. Wesley Clark, who said he was completely unaware of Tata's social media commentary prior to signing the letter and that the posts raise some serious questions that the nominee should have to answer during his confirmation process.

"He's been nominated for the third highest position at the Pentagon and this is a time where there is particular stress on civil-military relations," Clark said. "The country needs a professional in that position." Clark added that Tata needs to show he is mature enough, responsible enough and non-partisan enough to be trusted with that kind of authority.

While Clark acknowledges "it would have been a very tough call" to sign the letter of support if he knew about Tata's comments beforehand, he told CNN "I don't know if he could have persuaded me."

Still, the former NATO commander noted that his recommendation was based on the positive characteristics Tata displayed while serving in the military, which Clark observed firsthand.

Another signatory of the letter, retired Maj. Gen. James "Spider" Marks, also emphasized Tata's positive attributes when asked if still supported the nomination.

"I've known Tony for decades in peace and war. He's a bright, incredibly creative, inspirational leader with tons of global experience. His politics never were a part of any of our interactions or my opinion of him as 'an imperfect man'... a label that I wear as well," said Marks, who is currently a CNN military analyst.

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