Republicans blast Pentagon policy nominee over tweets, Iran nuclear deal

Republican senators tore into President Biden's nominee to lead the Pentagon's policy shop Thursday, with several coming out in opposition to Colin Kahl over fiery tweets in recent years critical of the Trump administration.

Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee also grilled Kahl, Biden's nominee to be under secretary of Defense for policy, over his support for the Iran nuclear deal, from which former President Trump withdrew and which Biden is hoping to revive.

"What concerns me here is that hyper-partisanship, especially in regards to our national security, is inappropriate for the position of under secretary of Defense for policy," Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking member of the committee said. "Unfortunately, in the past, in many cases, your public policy positions have been couched in partisan politics rather than fact-based analysis."

The under secretary of Defense for policy is widely considered the third most powerful civilian role at the Pentagon.

The job is also expected to be of particular importance in the Biden administration after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pledged to empower civilian voices, such as Kahl if he is confirmed, to assuage lawmakers concerned about a recently retired general leading the department.

Kahl does not need Republican support to be confirmed. But with a 50-50 party split in the Senate, he cannot afford to lose any Democratic votes if all Republicans oppose him.

Biden's first nominee for budget director, Neera Tanden, withdrew from consideration after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and several Republicans considered swing votes announced their opposition to her, in part over past tweets.

At Thursday's Armed Services hearing, several Republicans compared Kahl to one of former President Trump's nominees for the same job, Anthony Tata.

Tata withdrew after several inflammatory, conspiratorial and racist tweets resurfaced, including ones calling former President Obama a "terrorist leader" and telling former CIA Director John Brennan to "pick his poison" including execution or sucking "on a pistol."

The tweets from Kahl that Republicans found objectionable include him saying Republicans "debase themselves at the alter of Trump" and calling the GOP the "party of ethnic cleansing" in response to a news story on Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) defending Trump's decision to move troops out of northern Syria ahead of a Turkish invasion.

Republicans also pointed to a tweet from Kahl where he said "every Republican senator" who sustained Trump's veto of a bill to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen "now shares ownership of the world's worst humanitarian crisis."

In another tweet cited by Republicans, Kahl quoted a New York Times columnist's criticism of Trump's handling of COVID-19 that said "the Republican Party's death-cult fealty to Trump is wholly man-made."

Kahl apologized for the "disrespectful" language in his tweets, saying he got "swept up" in a polarizing online environment during the Trump administration.

"There were a number of positions that President Trump took that I strongly opposed. I think the language that I used in opposing those was sometimes disrespectful, and for that I apologize," Kahl said.

He also argued he has a "long track record of being able to put politics aside" while working at the Pentagon, citing his work for both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

"I understand that the position of the under secretary of Defense for policy, while it's a political appointment, is not a political job. It's a policy job. One that requires me to be nonpartisan," he added. "I know that I can comport myself in that way because I did it the last time I was at the Pentagon."

Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Joni Ernst (Iowa) said at the hearing they would oppose Kahl's confirmation over his tweets. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) had also said in a statement ahead of the hearing she would oppose Kahl.

"Your long record of volatile outburst will have a toxic and detrimental impact on your relationship with Congress. What's worse, I fear your intemperate manner will create an equally toxic environment inside the Pentagon, stifling healthy, robust debate," Cotton told Kahl.

"If this is the way you respond to mere policy disagreements when you're sitting at home reading the news, I do not think that you're fit to sit in the Pentagon and make decisions about life and death," Cotton added.

Democrats, though, dismissed the Republican criticism of Kahl as hypocritical and related more to partisan battles over how to handle Iran.

"That kind of criticism regarding tweets from folks who didn't say anything about the kind of lying, racist tweets out of the former president I think is pretty rich," Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) called Republican opposition to Kahl a "proxy" for their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

Biden has said he would rejoin the agreement if Iran, which began breaching the deal's limits after Trump withdrew, comes back into compliance. He accepted an invitation from the European Union for talks between Iran and other signatories of the deal, though Iran rejected the offer.

Republicans repeatedly pressed Kahl on his support for the nuclear deal and opposition to the Trump administration's so-called maximum pressure campaign against Tehran, arguing his criticism of Trump was misplaced because the United States and Iran did not go to war.

But Kahl defended his position, saying he was concerned the maximum pressure campaign would encourage Iran to accelerate its nuclear program and increase attacks in the region and that "both of those things have happened in the last three years."

And while he acknowledged the world is "probably a better place" without the Iranian general Trump ordered killed in a drone strike, he said he thinks his concerns about the "escalatory dimensions" of the strike were borne out by the events that followed.

"I have no moral qualms about the strike against Qassem Soleimani," Kahl said. "As you know, the Iranians retaliated for the strike with the missile salvo against al Asad airbase in western Iraq. Fortunately, no service members were killed, but dozens suffered brain injuries. And so we came very close to a major shooting war with Iran."