Official who once called Obama a ‘terrorist leader’ takes over Pentagon policy

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Anthony Tata, a retired brigadier general whose nomination for a top Pentagon job collapsed this summer due to Islamophobic tweets and other controversial statements, began overseeing policy for the Defense Department on Tuesday.

The move was part of a high-level civilian leadership shakeup that began on Monday when President Donald Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper. It continued on Tuesday with the departure of the Pentagon’s acting policy chief, the installation of a Trump loyalist as the new acting defense secretary’s chief of staff, and the resignation of the department’s top intelligence official.

Tata, who had been performing the duties as the No. 2 for policy, is now running the organization following the Tuesday resignation of acting policy chief James Anderson, first reported by POLITICO.

Anderson was confirmed in June as the No. 2 policy official but had been acting in the top job. He had been expected to be asked by the White House to resign in the next few days.

“I am particularly grateful to have been entrusted with leading the dedicated men and women of Policy, who play a key role in our Nation’s security,” Anderson wrote in his letter of resignation. “Now, as ever, our long-term success depends on adhering to the U.S. Constitution all public servants swear to support and defend.”

Anderson stepped down after repeated disagreements with the White House personnel office, according to current defense officials and one former defense official.

On top of Anderson’s departure, new acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller’s chief of staff, Jen Stewart, resigned and will be replaced by Kash Patel.

Patel, a Devin Nunes acolyte who played a key role as a Hill staffer in helping Republicans discredit the Russia probe, has had a number of roles in the Trump administration.

He joined the National Security Council’s International Organizations and Alliances directorate in February 2019 and was promoted to a senior counterterrorism role at the NSC in mid-summer. He was then installed as a top adviser in the Office of National Intelligence under former acting DNI Richard Grenell, and most recently served at the White House as a deputy assistant to Trump and as the top White House counterterrorism official.

Joseph Kernan, undersecretary of defense for intelligence, also resigned on Tuesday, in what the Pentagon said was "planned for several months." Ezra Cohen-Watnick, acting assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, will fill in for Kernan on an acting basis.

"I want to thank Dr. Anderson, Admiral Kernan and Jen Stewart for their service to the nation and the department," Miller said in a statement late on Tuesday. "We wish them the best in their next endeavors."

Yet the high amount of churn is setting off alarm bells among lawmakers, including House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith.

“It is hard to overstate just how dangerous high-level turnover at the Department of Defense is during a period of presidential transition. The top policy professional in the Department resigning the day after the Secretary of Defense was fired could mark the beginning of a process of gutting the DoD – something that should alarm all Americans," he said in a statement.

"If this is the beginning of a trend — the President either firing or forcing out national security professionals in order to replace them with people perceived as more loyal to him — then the next 70 days will be precarious at best and downright dangerous at worst," Smith added.

Islamophobic tweets

Tata’s ascension to temporary head of policy is sure to revive deep concerns among members of Congress who opposed his nomination for the job this summer.

After the White House announced his nomination, Tata came under fire for tweets calling former President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader” and for referring to Islam as the "most oppressive violent religion I know of," among other controversial statements.

Tata, who was a frequent Fox News guest, also derided House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) on Twitter, and shared an article that promoted a conspiracy theory that Obama was a "Manchurian candidate.” Tata later said he regretted the now-deleted tweets, which were unearthed by CNN.

The White House withdrew Tata’s nomination in July after the Senate abruptly canceled his nomination hearing minutes before it was set to begin. A statement from Senate Armed Services Chair Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) at the time said the committee didn’t have enough information to hold the hearing.

As one of the most senior officials in the Pentagon, the undersecretary of defense for policy is the principal adviser to the defense secretary on formulating the major national security and defense policy issues, from nuclear deterrence to missile defense to troop drawdowns worldwide.

Anderson, during his time as policy chief, pushed back on several Trump loyalists the White House tried to install at DoD, including Frank Wuco and Rich Higgins, said one of the people, who like others requested anonymity in order to discuss sensitive personnel issues. The White House tried and failed to install Wuco, a controversial former talk radio host who once called Obama “a Kenyan,” as a deputy overseeing special operations, and Higgins, a former National Security Council staffer who pushed conspiracy theories on Twitter, as chief of staff for Tata.

Anderson has been acting as the Pentagon’s policy chief since February, when the White House pushed out John Rood, the last person to be confirmed in the job, over perceived insufficient loyalty to the president.

Anderson was confirmed by the Senate on June 3 in the position of deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, which had been vacant since July 2019. However, he has continued acting in the No. 1 role since the Senate canceled a confirmation hearing for the White House’s top choice, Tata, after his Islamophobic tweets surfaced.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-Conn.), expressed shock that Tata would be in charge of policy.

"Trump’s Defense Department purge is deeply dangerous to our national security—first firing SecDef Esper by tweet & now promoting a known racist Islamophobe," the Senate Armed Services Committee member tweeted.

Natasha Bertrand and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.

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