WASHINGTON — Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain said Tuesday he is refusing to advance U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominees to the Pentagon until he is satisfied the administration is communicating its plans for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Outside a tense committee hearing on Afghanistan with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, McCain told Defense News that because the administration has not been open with Congress, “we’ve been holding nominations … from the Pentagon to fill in those Pentagon jobs.”
The disclosure came little more than a month after Trump announced a new strategy, criticized for its vagueness, that involves sending more U.S. troops as advisers to the Afghan military. The Department of Defense has acknowledged that it has 11,000 forces on the ground, more than the 8,500 previously reported, and that it plans to send an additional 3,000-plus.
The holds pertain to an unspecified number of civilian nominees, said to be in middle management; however, Secretary of the Army nominee Mark Esper and Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness nominee Robert Wilkie — both senior positions — are also on hold.
Trump has notoriously lagged behind other modern presidents in filling jobs across the federal government, and about 70 percent of DoD positions that need Senate confirmation are unfilled.
“There’s a number of them that have been awaiting hearings and confirmations, some have had hearings,” said McCain, R-Ariz. “The Constitution says that the Senate has the obligation to advise and consent. I am in keeping with the Constitution of the United States. When I got reelected, I said I would support and defend the Constitution, I didn’t say I would support and defend the president of the United States.”
McCain apparently made an exception for Dunford, the U.S. military’s top uniformed official, who received a breezy hearing and Senate reconfirmation last week. He has also been critical, when Senate Democrats slow-rolled Trump nominees to the Pentagon, and elsewhere in the federal government, in retribution for Republicans’ tack on health care reform.
McCain on Tuesday said he had met with Mattis and Dunford, and the relationship had improved, but he was not agreeing to relinquish the holds. “It depends on how much information we get, it depends on a lot of things,” he said.
McCain said he had yet to receive detailed briefings on what the 3,000-plus troops Trump announced he would send to Afghanistan would actually do there.
In Tuesday’s hearing, McCain publicly ripped the Trump administration’s “disturbing” lack of communication and coordination, and hinted he was using a constitutional check on the executive branch. He stopped short of acknowledging the holds in the hearing.
“There are not two individuals that I admire more than are sitting at the table facing this committee, but I want to tell you again: We will not accept a lack of information, a lack of strategy, a lack of coordination with this committee,” McCain said. “And there are several methods, thanks to the Constitution, that we have to try and force a change in that relationship. I’ve been told by both of you that we are having a strategy, that we are now going to work closely together with the committee, that we are working with various allies. I’m glad to hear that. But if anyone on this committee feels they have been fully briefed on what our strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq is, please raise your hand.”
After no senators’ hands went up, McCain further jabbed at “turmoil within the White House [and a number] of other personnel issues.”
“But that does not relieve you of your responsibility to keep us informed, to seek our advice and consent,” McCain said. “If you don’t, then we have no choice but to exercise our responsibilities under the Constitution, which we have.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also voiced concern that the opacity surrounding the Afghanistan strategy was preventing the American people from making good decisions. She asked for commitments from Mattis and Dunford to be open about numbers of troops and their missions, and they declined.
“No, ma’am, if it involves telling the enemy anything that will help them, and yes, ma’am, if it involves honesty with this committee in private, at any time, at closed hearing, we will get as specific as you wish. No reservations at all in private,” Mattis said.
“With the American people, we will state it in general terms, we have said it is over 3,000, so it‘s not that we’re hiding the direction we’re trending in, but I think the specifics are best shared with you alone,” Mattis said.
On the flip side, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., told Mattis and Dunford it was “a major improvement” that the administration was no longer publicly disclosing troop numbers or troop withdrawal deadlines.
“It’s a major change from the previous administration that I think is pretty helpful,” said Inhofe, who chairs the Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee.
Outside the hearing, Nebraska Republican Sen. Deb Fischer, who chairs the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said lawmakers remain frustrated after being stonewalled by the Obama administration on an Afghanistan strategy. She felt there had been an improvement in light of the day’s hearing, but that DoD needs to provide more.
“I have said publicly that it’s important for this administration to be able to provide us with a strategy,” Fischer said. “I think we have heard today and other hearings — as Secretary Mattis was saying — tactical efforts. We didn’t even hear those from the previous administration.”
Aaron Mehta, in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.