Chollet ‘absolutely unqualified’ for new Pentagon role, McCaul says

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) condemned the Biden administration for tapping a top State Department aide — whose nomination for another posting had been stalled by Republicans — for a top job in the defense secretary’s office.

Derek Chollet, the State Department counselor, will replace Kelly Magsamen as the new chief of staff to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the Pentagon chief announced on Monday.

“He is absolutely unqualified for this position,” said McCaul, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement to POLITICO, calling it an “ill-advised decision.”

“With the many national security threats this country is facing, we need real leadership at the Defense Department — and Derek Chollet is not that,” McCaul added. “I strongly urge the secretary to reconsider this move.”

McCaul, whose panel is leading an investigation into the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, had argued against his earlier nomination to lead the Pentagon’s policy office.

McCaul, in a February letter urging the Senate to reject Chollet, argued that the nominee “feigned forgetfulness” when questioned for the probe — a charge the State Department denied.

“His lack of candor in my committee’s transcribed interview together with his flippant public remarks about his work at the State Department make it clear he is neither a serious person nor is he trustworthy,” McCaul said in his statement Monday.

Chollet was President Joe Biden’s pick for the Pentagon’s top policy job but his confirmation was stalled in the Senate for months amid Republican backlash.

Chollet faced a bruising Senate confirmation hearing in September. In the nine months since, the Armed Services Committee hasn’t voted to advance Chollet, indicating he likely doesn’t have enough support to be confirmed by the full Senate. And the Senate is in session only a matter of weeks before the election, making it unlikely Democratic leaders would push to confirm him now.

Pentagon officials who defended Chollet cited his extensive Middle East policy experience, a quality that should be useful to Austin amid Israel’s war in Gaza. Chollet served as the Pentagon’s assistant secretary for international security affairs from 2012 to 2015 in the Obama administration.

Nominees for the Pentagon’s policy chief — a top role in DOD’s civilian leadership — typically receive broad bipartisan support, though that’s not been the case in recent years.

Interparty scrapping tied up the last Senate-confirmed undersecretary for policy, Colin Kahl, and then-President Donald Trump withdrew his late-term pick for the job, Anthony Tata, amid a partisan split.

The Pentagon’s chief of staff serves as an adviser to the defense secretary on issues ranging from the U.S. military force abroad to how the Pentagon can be prepared technologically for the future. The position, unlike the top policy job for which Chollet was nominated, does not require confirmation from Congress.

Chollet’s appointment was first reported by The Washington Post.