GOP Lines Up Against Biden Pentagon Nominee

Derek Chollet under fire for role in Afghan debacle, support for woke ideology

Heather Q. Hostetter and Counselor of the Department of State Derek Chollet (Leigh Vogel/Getty Images)
October 3, 2023

Senate Republicans are poised to oppose President Joe Biden’s candidate for Pentagon policy chief, Derek Chollet, after the nominee failed to alleviate concerns that he is more focused on culture-war issues and climate change than on military readiness during his contentious confirmation hearing last week.

Three Republican leaders on the Senate Armed Services Committee, including its ranking member, told the Washington Free Beacon they would vote against Chollet, and a senior Senate aide familiar with the matter said it is likely other Republicans will follow suit, meaning the nominee could only pass with slim Democrat support.

Sen. Eric Schmitt (Mo.), one of the Republicans opposing Chollet’s confirmation, told the Free Beacon he is considering putting a "hold" on Chollet's nomination, which would put any confirmation vote on ice for the foreseeable future and potentially force the Biden administration to choose another nominee. "Senator Schmitt is concerned by some of Chollet’s past remarks," his spokesman said.

Committee Republicans said Chollet was unable to differentiate himself from the prior undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, who had a hostile relationship with Republican members. Chollet also declined to criticize the deadly Afghanistan withdrawal, which occurred while he was serving as a State Department policy adviser.

"It is my sense that members on my side of the aisle have renewed doubts about this nomination following the hearing," Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.), the ranking member on the committee, told the Free Beacon, adding that Chollet’s "unsatisfactory answers on the withdrawal from Afghanistan and on racism in the military inspired little confidence."

Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa), another influential committee member, said she was particularly concerned by Chollet’s support for a range of Biden administration foreign policies largely opposed by Congress, most notable its decision to award Iran with $6 billion last month as part of a hostage deal. She also raised concerns about the decisions that led the State Department, and later the Pentagon, to hire Ariane Tabatabai, who was outed last week by Semafor as an alleged member of a secret Iranian government-linked propaganda network.

"Mr. Chollet has and will continue to push this same appeasement strategy, which will only embolden Iranian aggression," Ernst told the Free Beacon. "Under his watch, the administration allowed an Iranian spy to be hired by our State Department and work in our Pentagon, likely allowing the regime access to highly sensitive information. During my questioning, Chollet even defended the process that allowed this spy to be hired. This is a serious threat to national security, and her clearance should be suspended immediately, not defended."

A senior Republican Senate aide who spoke to the Free Beacon said that last Thursday’s rocky confirmation hearing—in which Chollet was grilled on woke military priorities and his role in the bungled Afghanistan withdrawal—convinced Republicans the nominee is not fit to serve in the Pentagon’s top policy role.

"It was clear a few [Republican] committee members were willing to get to ‘yes’ prior to last week’s hearing," said the aide. "But it’s hard to see how that will happen now."

"Members," the source added, "wanted Chollet to convince them he would be more candid than Colin Kahl, but Chollet failed that test by refusing to address Biden administration failures in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and elsewhere."

Chollet’s nomination comes after years of tension between Republican Senate Armed Services Committee members and Kahl’s policy office at the Department of Defense.

Kahl, a strong advocate for the Iran nuclear agreement, faced strong Republican opposition during his own confirmation hearings in 2021 but was saved at the last minute by a supporting vote from Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.). As Pentagon policy chief, Kahl was credited with planning the pullout from Afghanistan, which left thousands of Afghan allies stranded inside the country under Taliban rule and led to the terrorist attack that killed 13 U.S. soldiers.

"Undersecretary Kahl severed relations between the Department of Defense and congressional Republicans," Wicker told the Free Beacon. "That must be repaired by his successor."

While Republicans on the committee don’t have the majority to vote down Chollet—and are unlikely to get assistance from Democrats—Schmitt or another member could place a "hold" on his nomination, which would stall a final confirmation vote.

At the hearing last week, Republicans grilled Chollet about the Biden administration’s effort to increase the Pentagon’s focus on non-military issues, such as climate change and gender pronouns. They also pressed Chollet about his past comments on racism in the military, including his claim that the "Army in particular is a pretty bubba-oriented system."

Chollet said he used the term "bubba" in a "colloquial way" and was trying to express the "importance of having diversity and leadership throughout the armed forces."

Schmitt said Chollet’s statement was "disparaging," noting that "bubba" is the "stereotypical nickname of southern white males."

Chollet also deflected questions about the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which the nominee was involved in as a foreign policy adviser at the State Department.

When Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R., Ala.) asked if the administration "made some mistakes in the withdrawal," Chollet responded that errors were "made over that 20-year period" of intervention.

In another testy exchange with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska), Chollet refused to say whether he believes that warfighting and ship-building are more important missions for the U.S. Navy than combating climate change.