The three US military service secretaries went on the offensive against Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville over his ongoing hold on senior military nominations in an interview with CNN on Tuesday, saying he is aiding communist and autocratic regimes, and being used by adversaries like China against the US.
“Our potential adversaries are paying attention,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told CNN’s Jake Tapper alongside Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth in an exclusive joint interview for “The Lead.” “It is affecting how they view the United States and our military capabilities and support for the military. This needs to stop.”
Kendall said that at an embassy event in Washington, DC, an Air Force general officer was “taunted” by a Chinese colonel “about the way our democracy was working.”
Del Toro echoed the same concerns, saying that as someone “born in a communist country, I would have never imagined one of our own senators would actually be aiding and abetting a communist and other autocratic regimes around the world.”
“This is having a real negative impact and will continue to have an impact on our combat readiness,” said Del Toro, who was born in Cuba. “That is what the American people truly need to understand.”
“It is just unprecedented to be attacking apolitical general officers and flag officers in this way. It is taking our apolitical military … and eroding its foundations,” Wormuth added.
The three spoke a day after they wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in which they said the months-long standoff is “putting our national security at risk.”
The unusual public intervention from the secretaries in a congressional political dispute reflects the frustration felt at the highest levels of the US military over Tuberville’s holds, which have been in place for six months.
“Senators have many legislative and oversight tools to show their opposition to a specific policy. They are free to introduce legislation, gather support for that legislation and pass it. But placing a blanket hold on all general and flag officer nominees, who as apolitical officials have traditionally been exempt from the hold process, is unfair to these military leaders and their families. And it is putting our national security at risk,” the leaders write.
In an interview with CNN, Tuberville doubled down on his stance and expressed disappointment in Del Toro’s comments to Tapper about him.
“It is concerning that you got people that are in secretary positions like that, that would say something like that in our country, instead of getting on the phone and calling me and saying ‘Coach, what are you doing?’ It just makes no sense,” he said.
Tuberville, of Alabama, has delayed the confirmations of more than 300 top military nominees over his opposition to the Pentagon’s policy of reimbursing service members and their families who have to travel to receive abortion care. In the Senate, one senator can hold up nominations or legislation, and Tuberville’s stance has left three military services to operate without a Senate-confirmed leader for the first time in history.
It’s possible to confirm each of the nominees one by one, but Senate Democrats have argued that would take up valuable floor time – despite a five-week recess taken in August. The Senate is reconvening on Tuesday.
Without the replacements, the “foundation of America’s enduring military advantage is being actively eroded” by Tuberville, and the holds also have “a domino effect upending the lives of our more junior officers, too,” the leaders write.
“We know officers who have incurred significant unforeseen expenses and are facing genuine financial stress because they have had to relocate their families or unexpectedly maintain two residences,” they write. “Military spouses who have worked to build careers of their own are unable to look for jobs because they don’t know when or if they will move. Children haven’t known where they will go to school, which is particularly hard given how frequently military children change schools already.”
Wormuth mentioned Tuesday an Army general officer who has been unable to move their aging mother into their home because the hold on their nomination has kept them from moving into a new house as they’d planned.
“Because that move isn’t happening, they are paying $10,000 a month right now month to keep the aging parent in an assisted living facility,” Wormuth said. “That is the kind of consequence that’s happening, and these are service members who have literally put their lives on the line for Americans for the last 20 years.”
The op-ed concludes, “We believe that the vast majority of senators and of Americans across the political spectrum recognize the stakes of this moment and the dangers of politicizing our military leaders. It is time to lift this dangerous hold and confirm our senior military leaders.”
“Chuck Schumer could confirm all of the service chiefs in one day—but he refuses. Instead he just took five weeks off. Clearly he is not worried about this affecting readiness,” Steven Stafford, a Tuberville spokesperson, told CNN.
In July, Tuberville posted on X, “I didn’t start this. The Biden admin injected politics in the military and imposed an unlawful abortion policy on American taxpayers. I am trying to get politics out of the military.”
Tuberville says the Pentagon is violating law with the reproductive health policies that include, among other things, a travel allowance for troops and their families who must travel to receive an abortion because of the state laws where they are stationed. Pentagon officials have pointed to a Justice Department memo that says the policies are lawful.
The holds first began in March and Tuberville has held his ground despite mounting public pressure.
Active-duty military spouses hand-delivered a petition to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Tuberville in July signed by hundreds of military family members who were “deeply concerned and personally impacted by Senator Tuberville blocking confirmation of senior military leaders.”
By the end of this year, there will be more than 600 military officers up for nomination, including the nominee for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Air Force Gen. C.Q. Brown, who has been nominated by President Joe Biden to take over for Army Gen. Mark Milley.
Among other positions, the chief of naval operations, Army chief of staff and Marine Corps commandant are serving in acting capacities. In some cases, the officer filling the role on a temporary basis is lower-ranking than the officer who was nominated to take the position; the Missile Defense Agency, for example, is being led by a one-star in an acting capacity despite the position typically being filled by a three-star general.
Wormuth said Tuesday that she’s worried the hold will impact morale among lower-ranking officers.
“I really worry that a lot of those officers who volunteer are going to walk away and basically say, ‘I don’t want to deal with this,’” she said, “‘If this is what it takes to be a general officer, I don’t want to do this.’”
This story has been updated with additional information.