Top Pentagon Nominee Ignored Warnings from Colleagues About His Twitter Snark. It's Coming Back to Bite Him.

Former Obama Administration official warned Colin Kahl he was degrading the public discourse

Colin Kahl
Colin Kahl / Getty Images
March 9, 2021

In March 2017, former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter told Colin Kahl, now President Joe Biden's nominee for a top Pentagon post, that his lacerating Twitter broadsides were contributing to "the degradation of the public discourse."

Kahl ignored warnings like that from his foreign policy colleagues, according to a review of his social media posts by the Washington Free Beacon, and it is now coming back to bite him.

Nominated to be undersecretary of defense for policy, Kahl's tweets have become a flashpoint of his confirmation. Beyond slamming Republican lawmakers, Kahl also took several Trump administration nominees to task for their own social media posts, arguing that intemperate tweets could be a "liability" for Senate confirmation, and advising one official to "delete your account…or your job."

Now it’s Kahl's nomination that is in jeopardy after Democratic senator Joe Manchin (W. Va.) torpedoed Biden's nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget over malicious tweets aimed at Republican senators. In a sign that Kahl is on the ropes, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with Manchin on Tuesday about Kahl's nomination, according to a Politico report.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee raised concerns about Kahl's fitness to serve after the Free Beacon revealed tweets that characterized the GOP as the "party of ethnic cleansing" and a "clown show" and claimed that critics of the Iran nuclear deal "won't be satisfied until they get the war they've pushed for decades."

Attention is now turning to Manchin, whose opposition tanked Neera Tanden's nomination for Office of Management and Budget director and drew allegations from the left that the senator held Tanden to an unfair standard because she was an Indian woman.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii), who also sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she believed female and minority nominees were "being scrutinized more heavily" than others, telling Politico, "There seems to be a pattern here."

Kahl, who is a white male, apologized for his tweets at his confirmation hearing last week, calling them "disrespectful."

"To state the obvious, the last few years have been polarizing on social media. I'm sure there are times when I got swept up in that," he said.

But for years, Kahl appeared to brush off colleagues in the foreign policy world who publicly warned him that his Twitter feed was too incendiary.

In March 2017, Kahl tweeted an article about President Trump misattributing an Irish proverb, adding that Trump was "a fool surrounded by imbeciles." His comment drew a rebuke from Slaughter, the former Obama administration official and CEO of New America, a Democratic-leaning think tank.

"With respect, you're contributing to degradation of public discourse. Why even focus on something this trivial?" wrote Slaughter.

Kahl shot back that "POTUS words matter & there's a stream of errors (some trivial, some not) that accumulate to create global perception of incompetence."

"Colin, you know I agree about the world & Presidential gravitas, but look at the language you used. It doesn't help," Slaughter responded.

Kahl and Slaughter did not respond to requests for comment.

Mark Dubowitz, CEO at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish D.C. think tank, also raised concerns after Kahl suggested on Twitter that Dubowitz wanted to start a war with Iran in April 2017.

"Always happy to debate issues. But try less snark, straw men & ad hominem," Dubowitz tweeted to Kahl.

"Twitter is built for snark," responded Kahl. "And it's a performative contradiction for you to complain about my Twitter feed, and yet… You decide to spend more than an hour on a Saturday engaging it (BTW, that's more snark). Have a great weekend!"

Kahl also went after Trump administration nominees and officials for their own social media comments.

Kahl seized on a 2017 Twitter post by Victor Cha, who was then the nominee for ambassador to South Korea. Cha had retweeted an article from the U.S. Naval Institute that argued for limited strikes on North Korea. Kahl flagged Cha's post as "interesting (& troubling)."

Kahl argued that "as a nominee/diplomat, everything you say/tweet will be interpreted by others, whether you intend it or not."

In February 2020, Kahl took aim at Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Len Khodorkovsky for referring to Joe Biden as "President Cash For Clunkers," a reference to the initiative of the same name that Biden ran as vice president.

Kahl suggested Khodorkovsky should lose his job for the tweet. "Let me put it this way: those who work in national security positions with any real consequence (as you supposedly do at State) shouldn’t mindlessly tweet political propaganda on domestic affairs to curry favor with the Dear Leader. So delete your account...or your job," wrote Kahl.

After Trump nominated Richard Grenell for U.S. ambassador to Germany in 2017, Kahl tweeted that the "nomination represents a true test of whether a Twitter feed matters for confirmation."

"No one is questioning whether he's served (as have I). Only question is whether one's Twitter feed is a liability given how nasty it is," Kahl said of the nomination.

President Biden entered office promising to restore civility to government after four years of the Trump administration, which Democrats had accused of degrading the public discourse.

Kahl also claimed that his Twitter commentary represented his true views—but bemoaned the fact that he was out of government and couldn't act on his convictions.

"I have no alibi. My Twitter accnt makes my feelings clear," Kahl wrote in another post. "I just have no actual power to make it happen, which is where conspiracy fizzles."