Kahl apologized early in Thursday’s hearing for what he called “disrespectful” language on social media, and argued that he would approach the top policy job from a nonpartisan perspective and with a lens of bipartisanship in his dealings with Congress.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who plans to vote against Kahl, confronted the nominee early in the hearing by noting past tweets that were critical of Republicans and the policies of former President Donald Trump. In one tweet, Kahl said Republicans “debase themselves at the alter of Trump” and said the GOP is “the party of ethnic cleansing,” sharing a news story about senior GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas defending Trump’s decision to move troops out of northern Syria ahead of Turkey’s incursion there.
“The real tense moments are going to happen when you’re in the Pentagon and Iran hijacks another American ship or China shoots down an aircraft,” Cotton told Kahl. “And 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.”
Kahl said he was “swept up” in the polarizing environment online during the Trump years.
“To state the obvious, the last few years have been pretty polarizing on social media. I’m sure there are times that I got swept up in that,” Kahl told Cotton. “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.”
He emphasized his “long track record” of putting aside partisan politics at the Pentagon, starting in the George W. Bush administration.
“I understand that the position of the undersecretary 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.”
The panel’s top Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, also questioned Kahl’s comments and policy positions — including whether sanctions should be lifted against Iran. And he criticized the details of a call last week between himself and Kahl were reported by POLITICO.
“National security is too important for partisan politics,” Inhofe said. “Unfortunately, in the past, in many cases, your public policy positions have been couched in partisan politics rather than fact-based analysis.”
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) likened GOP concerns with Kahl’s tweets to the opposition of Anthony Tata, a Trump nominee for the top Pentagon policy job who was withdrawn last year amid scrutiny for making inflammatory remarks about Muslims and Democratic officials and amplifying conspiracy theories on Twitter. Tata was later appointed as acting policy chief.
“Your tweets have been tough, and in many cases incendiary, something for which many members had issues with the previous administration’s nominee for this very same position,” Rounds said.
One Democrat, Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, noted the irony of Republicans raking a nominee for harsh tweets after many GOP lawmakers avoided commenting on Trump’s incendiary posts by saying they hadn’t seen them.
“I note that this nominee has been criticized regarding some tweets that he put out on the Iran deal, which I consider to be one of the most critical agreements that this country has entered into,” Hirono said. “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.”
In addition to Cotton, Iowa Republican Joni Ernst announced during the hearing she’ll oppose Kahl’s nomination.
Another Republican Armed Services member, Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, vowed to oppose Kahl ahead of Thursday’s hearing. The GOP senator argued Kahl “has been consistently wrong about almost every foreign policy issue in recent memory” and “has zero meaningful experience” on China.
Democrats appeared largely supportive of Kahl. Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) praised Kahl’s experience, which includes serving as the Pentagon’s Middle East policy chief from 2009 to 2011 and as then-Vice President Biden’s national security adviser from 2014 to 2017.
And Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said Republican opposition to Kahl is rooted more in their opinions on the Iran nuclear deal, which Kahl supported, than objections to him.
“I think your nomination is sort of a proxy for a sharp difference of opinion in this committee and in Congress about the wisdom of the JCPOA,” Kaine told Kahl. “That is the core of many of the questions today.”
If Senate Republicans unify in opposition to Kahl, one Democrat could sink the nomination in the 50-50 Senate. The same situation imperiled Tanden’s nomination when Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin opposed her bid.