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Pentagon leaders have launched a new, more aggressive campaign this week to pressure Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville into finally releasing a nine-month hold on senior military nominations they say is harming national security.
The Defense Department dispatched the civilian leaders of three branches of the U.S. military to slam the senator for the blockade, first in a WashingtonPost op-ed on Monday and then during a CNN interview on Tuesday. On Wednesday, DOD took the rare step of puttingout a news story highlighting the hold’s impact on its official media webpage. Also this week, the Pentagon released a slate of new senior nominations, including for the Air Force vice chief of staff.
During the CNN interview, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro — a Cuban-born Navy veteran — went so far as to accuse Tuberville of “aiding and abetting communists.”
“For someone who was born in a communist country, I would have never imagined that actually one of our own senators would actually be aiding and abetting communists and other autocratic regimes around the world,” said Del Toro, speaking alongside Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth on CNN.
While DOD leaders have continued to talk publicly about the hold through the August recess, the Pentagon is amping up the pressure on lawmakers now that the Senate is back in session. This week has seen a concerted effort to highlight to the American public how harmful the holds are, according to a senior DOD official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the strategy behind the media push.
“These holds are not tenable, and the longer it goes the more damaging it is to our readiness and to national security, and of course to our families who are in this limbo state,” said the official. The average American does not “necessarily feel why this is impactful, but it does have an impact.”
Also on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder provided reporters with a breakdown of the promotions on hold by service, noting that 22 are tied to positions in the Pacific, a nod to Washington's interest in deterring China.
The media strategy does not mark the first time Pentagon officials have spoken on the matter, but the volume of speeches, interviews and op-eds this week make clear the effort is intensifying.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has not spoken with Tuberville directly since a July phone call, but the Pentagon chief has engaged with senators on both sides of the aisle about the holds through the August recess, according to the official. Austin’s and Tuberville’s staff members are also in contact.
The senator, who objects to the Pentagon’s new policy of reimbursing service members who must travel to obtain abortions and other reproductive care, has shown no signs of letting up despite the new pressure campaign. He shot back at Del Toro, saying attacking him "wasn't very smart to do."
"First of all, he should have called me. I have not talked to him about this," Tuberville told reporters on Wednesday, adding it's "disappointing that somebody would do that, would just come out and say that and they know that's not true. … His administration has got the borders wide open."
On Wednesday, Marine Gen. Eric Smith, whose nomination to become the service’s top officer is among those blocked, added his voice to the chorus, telling an audience at the Defense News Conference in Washington that the situation “is not sustainable.” Smith, currently the Corps’ No. 2 officer, is also serving as the Marine commandant in an acting role until his confirmation goes through.
He said senior officers are often being forced to do two or three jobs due to the holds and unfilled positions, but “what doesn't stop is the clock. The adversary doesn't take a pause.”
Smith added that, since he’s not the confirmed commandant, he is forced to delegate many of those duties to other officers, including answering some questions from the Pentagon leadership on building next year’s budget.
“I am responsible and accountable for the entirety of the Marine Corps, to the taxpayers, to Congress, and more importantly to the parents of Marines, and I'm not there — I send someone to do that for me and then get a report back,” he said, a process that chews up valuable time.
Pushing that work on already overworked lower-ranking Marines “starts to have an effect on families, and to say that it doesn't is factually inaccurate,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon also sent Congress 11 high-level nominations this week, including Space Force Maj. Gen. David Miller Jr. to be the commander of Space Operations Command, Lt. Gen. James Slife to be the next Air Force vice chief of staff, and the deputy commanders of the Pacific Fleet and Special Operations Command.
Congressional Democrats at the same time ramped up their criticism of Tuberville's hold and implored his fellow Republicans to step in, an approach that has so far come up empty.
"Basically, what Tuberville and others are saying is they don't believe in democracy," House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said at the Defense News Conference.
"If you don't like the travel policy … get someone elected who will change that policy," Smith said. "Don't stop the ability of the Department of Defense to do its job."
Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) charged that Tuberville is "flirting with disaster" through the vacancies on the Joint Chiefs resulting from the hold.
In a floor speech condemning Tuberville on Wednesday, Reed estimated that nearly 90 percent of the 852 general and flag officers stand to be impacted by the blockade. An estimated 650 nominees will require Senate confirmation this year. Reed added that a further 110 officers will need to do two jobs or take on a temporary assignment because of the blockade.
"He has achieved what America’s enemies could only dream of: instability in the ranks of our military leadership," Reed said.
Tuberville and other Republicans have countered that Democrats could hold individual votes on nominees. But Democrats say that would take too much floor time and the problem is up to Republicans to solve.