Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) has pledged to block appointments of military officials until this situation is resolved. Why is he doing this? We spoke with Cody Sargent and Mike Gonzalez to find out.
John Popp: From The Heritage Foundation, this is Heritage Explains.
Senator Tuberville: Mr. President.
Presiding Officer: Senator from Alabama.
Tuberville: Reserving the right to object, I continue to reiterate my stance and my position over the last almost four months now.
Mark Guiney: This is the voice of Senator Tommy Tuberville speaking on the Senate floor on June 20th of this year. He’s voicing an objection to a motion on the Senate floor. This was the eighth time he’s done so.
Tuberville: About my opposition to this policy. Now, the burden is not on me to pass legislation to stop this illegal policy. The burden is on the administration. The burden is on the administration to stop breaking the law. And so let me just say this one more time, because I keep getting asked the same question over and over again. I will keep my hold. I will keep it on until the Pentagon follows the law or changes the law. It’s that simple.
Guiney: What motion is he blocking? Why is he blocking it, and why is it such a big deal in the news these days? I sat down with Cody Sargent, Assistant Director for Media and Public Relations at The Heritage Foundation, who’s in a unique position to explain what’s going on because he spent a year on the Hill as Press Secretary for Senator Tommy Tuberville.
Cody Sargent: My name is Cody Sargent, as you said here at Heritage. I am assistant Director of Media and Public Relations. I work with all of the fine folks in journalism and media to get our heritage experts in conservative viewpoints out there in the news. But immediately before coming to Heritage, I spent time on Capitol Hill working as Press secretary for Senator Tuberville.
Guiney: I hear in your voice, you have a certain amount of the Southern inflection. Are you from the south?
Sargent: I am from the South, which is funny. I think when I go back home, I’m from the upstate of South Carolina, which is a beautiful place for everyone to visit if you haven’t been. But back home, I don’t think I have an accent at all. I love being up here in DC, where people do think I have a Southern accent. I take that as a compliment.
Guiney: We’re going to talk a little bit about something even a little more Southern, which you already mentioned, which is that you spent some time in the offices of Senator Tommy Tuberville from Alabama.
Guiney: How did you wind up there?
Sargent: It’s actually a great DC story. As I mentioned, I’m from South Carolina. I’m not from Alabama, although I’m proud to call myself now an adopted Alabamian after working for the fine folks of that state. But I was working for a firm in DC, but I really wanted to serve the American people and get experience on Capitol Hill. I just happened to be at the right place at the right time on a boat in the river here in DC and met another one of Senator Tuberville’s staffers. She let me know they were looking for another person to add to the communications team. Really, it was just the right place, the right time, God’s plan type of thing.
I met with Senator Tuberville, or as we all call him, Coach Tuberville. In my interview, we connected over football. For those of you who don’t know, his career was spent in 40 years working as a coach, all from coaching high school girls basketball and up to coaching Division I college football. I was at a game when my Clemson Tigers played his then Auburn Tigers in the 2000s in the Peach Bowl. After we connected over that in my interview with Coach Tuberville, I knew it was the right office for me to go to, and I’m very thankful for the time I spent there.
Guiney: What was that experience like working for him?
Sargent: It was excellent. Senator Tuberville is deeply misunderstood, I think, by the Press Corps and the swamp in the DC bubble. But he’s highly understood by his voters and constituents, the people of Alabama. Because he’s much more like the average American than I would say a lot of members of Congress. He’s the only coach in Congress, the only coach in the Senate. He caress deeply about his country and about the people that he’s serving. He’s an excellent boss on Capitol Hill. He’s the only person I’ve work for on Capitol Hill, but he is friendly and accessible to his staff, which, from what I’ve heard from others, is not always the case when you’re working for a member of Congress.
As a communication staffer, he was both the best and the worst. Because he, as I said, is extremely friendly. He talks to everyone. He never refused a reporter who came up to him in the hallways. A lot of members of Congress brush them off and refuse to do what we call walk-and-talks, where they’re walking down the hall, talking to them. Senator Tuberville, being a nice, down-to-earth guy, spoke to all of them, so the reporters really liked him. As his press person, again, that made my job a little difficult sometimes. He’s an excellent person to work for and like I said, he just loves our country and wants to do a good job for the people that he’s serving.
Guiney: Can you talk a little bit about the situation that Senator Tuberville now finds himself in the stand he’s chosen to take?
Sargent: Sure. I think that this has really bubbled up in the news since the spring, since Democrats, honestly, have made it a talking point of theirs. Because I think they see it as an issue that can help them raise money and get votes and all of that sort of thing. But this story really goes back a lot longer than that. It’s over a year.
Last summer, we saw the Supreme Court decide to overturn Roe v. Wade and sends the issue of abortion back to the voters for their state legislatures. The Biden Administration really announced that they would be using a whole of government approach to do whatever they could to facilitate and fund abortion without restriction across the country. They would be forcefully using all the levers and agencies of the federal government to do that. We’ve seen that play out through a lot of different agencies, especially though, through the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Last summer, again, after this decision came down, President Biden announced that he would be directing his government to do that. A few weeks later, the Department of Defense released a memo, basically saying that abortion was essential to the US Military, and they would be exploring all of their options of how they could facilitate and support abortion access for members of the Military and their families. But there was really no specifics on how they would do that.
At the time, last summer, Senator Tuberville and all of the members, or the Republican members, I should say, of the Senate Armed Services Committee, commonly referred to as SASC on the Hill, they requested more information. “What did you mean by this memo? How is it essential to the Military? Can you give us statistics of why it’s so essential for service members, and what are you going to do about it?” The DOD basically stonewalled for months. This went on from the summer into the fall, where multiple offices were saying, “What did you mean by this? What are you doing with taxpayer dollars?”
Members of SASC had the constitutional oversight of the Department of Defense, so they were asking these questions and got nowhere. It went so far as to they had scheduled a briefing with the Republican members of SASC that then, the Department of Defense, very disrespectfully, I may add, canceled right before it was about to begin when staffers were already on the call that they were supposed to be on.
Finally, Senator Tuberville said, “Listen, either you give my staff this briefing, or I’m going to start holding Military nominees.” The DOD responded, gave that briefing. This was in early December of 2022. And in that briefing is when Senator Tuberville’s staff found out more specifics that the DOD had been really reluctant to release, that they were planning on using taxpayer funds and resources to basically facilitate what has become an abortion travel agency.
Members of the Military and their spouses and dependents are now eligible to receive not only funds for travel, but also facilitation for travel to receive abortions out of state. It essentially has turned the Pentagon into an abortion travel agency. When Senator Tuberville found out about that, that they were planning this, immediately, he said, “This is against the law in my view. You obviously have been trying to hide this from us because it is so controversial and potentially illegal. If you do this, I’m going to hold nominations,” which is one of his privileges as a senator.
The DOD did not respond for several more months. In February, they officially went through with their plans to create this Pentagon abortion travel agency. And in response, Senator Tuberville kept his word, which he had said more than two months earlier, that he would start holding nominees. That began in February, and again, you really didn’t see Democrats make much, or the other side of this argument, make much of a stink about this for a few months. And then that really has ramped up. This started in February, Secretary Austin wrote another memo, basically saying, this policy is in effect, so the Military is doing this.
Of course, they are very tight-lipped about specifics and they won’t tell us how many have been performed, or in what stage of pregnancy. They claim that it violates HIPAA and this and that. But really, it’s because they don’t want to be exposed for what they’re doing. They don’t want the scenario that I mentioned as a hypothetical to be true and have to tell the American people that they’re doing that. We don’t know how many or any specifics, but yes, this has been going on since February.
The Military’s own study that they commissioned estimated that the number of abortions facilitated by the DOD would jump from around a dozen, as I mentioned, to well over 4,000. That’s not a number that Senator Tuberville or The Heritage Foundation or a conservative group has come up with last December. That is what the Pentagon told Senator Tuberville’s staff based on a study that they commissioned from the RAND Corporation, which is a third-party outside group. By their own estimation, taxpayers will be on the hook for 4,000 more abortions a year under this policy.
Guiney: Senator Tuberville, what makes him uniquely able to block Military appointments?
Sargent: He’s not really that uniquely able because all 100 senators have this right and this privilege. The Senate has a lot of wonky parliamentary rules that seem hard to understand at times, and they may seem antiquated, but the founders created the Senate to be what was called the world’s greatest deliberative body. It’s intentionally slow and it intentionally gives the minority party or minority voters, minority Americans, some power in the upper chamber. That’s the point of the Senate. That’s why it takes 60 votes to pass a law in the Senate. Obviously, Republicans are in the minority in the Senate right now and have very little power. Senator Schumer, the Democratic leader, has complete autonomy and control over what makes it to the floor.
One of the very few things that every senator has the privilege to do is object when anything is requested to be passed by what’s called unanimous consent. The Senate and the House, for that matter, can pass legislation using a procedure called unanimous consent, which basically foregoes the traditional path of a bill or piece of legislation must take to make it up for a final vote, and allows it to sail through as long as a single senator, or as long as no senator objects. You have consent of the entire body. This is done for things like nominations. Anything that’s basically non-controversial, the Senate uses it to speed up the process. But if one Senator objects, then it can’t be done.
Senator Tuberville is using that privilege, as all senators have, to object to the unanimous consent motions of approving Military promotions and nominations for some Military promotions. It’s the highest rankings, so generals and admirals. It’s ranks 07 and above. Senator Tuberville has been calling for them to talk about some path forward, and there’s basically been an all-out refusal from the administration to do that. You’ve also seen no movement from Democrat leaders in the Senate to move forward with these nominations as they could. Senator Tuberville’s hold only stops them from passing these nominations and promotions through unanimous consent, but that does not stop them from moving through the Senate.
They could all be voted upon individually. Leader Schumer could have passed all of these nominations and promotions through regular order of the Senate, meaning they could be voted upon one by one. Senator Schumer has refused to allow that because he’s making a point. He wants this medicine to be harsh. He wants this to inflict pain on people because he thinks it makes Senator Tuberville look bad, and I think they can clip their floor speeches about abortion access and send them out in fundraising emails. But all of these nominations could be approved, and that’s entirely up to Leader Schumer to put them on the floor for a vote, which he refuses to do.
Since the beginning, Senator Tuberville has been calling this illegal and unconstitutional, and I want to differentiate or I want to explain why that is because it’s gotten a little bit confused in the media. A lot of people point to the Hyde Amendment as why this Pentagon policy is illegal, but that’s not exactly true. The Hyde Amendment has been a bipartisan agreement for decades now that basically says that no taxpayer funding can be used for abortion. The DOD is actually not beholden to the Hyde Amendment, but there is specific federal statute that regulates abortions in the Military. It’s code US ... Let me start over so I don’t misquote this. There’s specific federal statute that regulates abortions in the Military.
It’s 10 U.S. Code § 1093, which lays out that the Department of Defense can provide abortions in three specific cases; in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother. There has been abortions performed by the DOD for decades now, and there’s been bipartisan agreement that it should be very tailored and narrow use of taxpayer funds for abortion. In that briefing way back in December, Senator Tuberville staffed that using the federal law, the DOD has facilitated 10 to 12 abortions a year. But this new policy is allowing the Department of Defense to fund and facilitate abortion on demand without restriction.
It’s a clear violation of the spirit of that law that was passed, which I will add, by the way, with the support of then Senator Joe Biden, that said that the Military can only fund abortion in these very narrow instances. What the Pentagon is doing is, they’re not actually paying for the actual procedure, but they’ll pay for the time off and the flight and the hotel and the per diem food for a service member or their spouse or their dependent to fly across the country to get an abortion. For example, if a service member is in Alabama and they have a spouse who decides they want an abortion in the ninth month, the Military will buy their flight, book their hotel room, fly them to Colorado to get that late-term abortion, and then fly them back to Alabama. And also, make sure their spouse has paid time off. But then they’re saying they’re not actually funding abortion.
It’s a ridiculous argument. They had their DOJ write a memo saying that this is why they think it is actually legal. But you have many legal experts, including Senator Mike Lee, who I mentioned, who have said, come on, this clearly violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the law. All Senator Tuberville is saying is, if you want to change the law, that law has to be voted upon in Congress. And the Pentagon refuses to let this policy come up for a vote because they know they would lose. They do not have 60 US senators who would vote for the expansion of taxpayer-funded abortion by the Pentagon, and that’s why they refuse to put it on the floor and are trying to do this through some memo caveat like a decree handed down from a king.
Guiney: Wow. Is there precedence for this sort of thing happening?
Sargent: Yes, there’s lots of precedents, which is one of the favorite lines of attacks against Senator Tuberville. And may I add, the several other Republican senators who now stand with him on this issue, one of the constant lines of attacks is, “This is unprecedented. This has never happened before.” Although it has now gone on longer than other efforts to do, this has happened many times for decades from senators on both sides of the aisle. You’ve said Democrat senators hold up all nominations over one particular person, or you’ve had senators use this because they were mad about losing a basing decision in their state, or they wanted the DOD to provide information or change course on a particular policy of theirs, just like Senator Tuberville.
Now, Senator Tuberville’s has gone on longer, I think, than anyone expected, and like many of those that have happened in the past. But that’s because the Pentagon is refusing to work with Senator Tuberville to come to a solution. Although the length of his may be unprecedented, the tactic is certainly not without precedent from both sides of the aisle. It just so happens that in the past, the Pentagon gave the objecting Senator what they wanted. They acquiesced to the Senator as the elected person they sent to Washington to represent the people of the United States. We have a civilian-run Military for a reason, with civilian oversight. That’s how the founder set it up. Senator Tuberville is exerting that oversight because of a policy he feels is illegal, and the Pentagon is refusing to acquiesce.
I don’t think it’s unprecedented, what he is doing, in reality or the conviction that he’s using to justify what he’s doing. What’s unprecedented is the Pentagon basically using the full force and funding of the US government to push an abortion agenda that half of the country, at least, does not support.
Guiney: Approximately how many other senators are now standing with Senator Tuberville?
Sargent: That’s a good question. I would love a reporter honestly, to poll every single Republican senator and get them on the record on this. But over past several months, I would say you’ve had the majority of the Republican Conference come out and to support him. There’s been a few Republican senators, probably notably Leader McConnell, the leader of the Republican Conference, say he supports the principle, but not the tactic. But you’ve had far more Republicans come to his aid. You’ve even seen several of them join him on the floor of the Senate to make this objection.
The way it works is, for these nominations to be passed by unanimous consent, a senator has to physically go to the floor of the Senate, call for its passage and then to object Senator Tuberville, or another senator has to physically go and object. You’ve had some of his colleagues, like Senator Marshall from Kansas, who, by the way, is an OB-GYN, who has delivered thousands of babies, and Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who’s a constitutional scholar, both join him on the floor of the Senate and support him in these efforts.
I think the support from both of those colleagues are notable because of their backgrounds and their expertise, but their arguments are reflective, I think, of the broader Republican Conference.
Guiney: Do we have an idea of approximately how many appointments have been blocked?
Sargent: Yes, I would need to look exactly. The last time I checked, it was more than 250. That is a lot. There are a lot of nominations held up, and I also want to be clear in that I have a deep respect for anyone who is serving or has served our country. I’m not a Military expert and would never try to present myself as an expert on the Military or Military promotions. I’ve never served, and I want to be clear on that. What I think I am an expert in is Senator Tuberville’s thinking on this issue because I worked with him on it for many months. But Senator Tuberville also has deep respect for our Military. He is the son of a career service member. His father served our country in World War II, where he won a Purple Heart and several other rewards. His father was a service member until the day he died.
Alabama is also home to one of the country’s largest, or one of the largest pieces of our Military infrastructure. It’s home to several Military installations, produces Military equipment. It’s one of the biggest players in terms of our Military infrastructure. So Senator Tuberville has deep respect for the Military and his constituents who serve in the Military. Alabama also is home to one of the largest populations of veterans in the country, so this issue is very personal to him. And I want to make clear that what he is doing is, I would say the left would say, disrespects the Military, but I think it actually shows a high respect for the Military and its mission. Because he’s trying to preserve the Military and protect the Military that has gotten off course.
Not because of the rank and file men and women who are serving our country, but because of the suits in the E-ring of the Pentagon who are steering our Military on a dangerous path toward politicization and away from what it’s meant to be. While what he is doing may be tough and is certainly making life more difficult for some members of the Military, it is just because the Pentagon is breaking the law. And the Pentagon is using taxpayer funds, at least irresponsibly and unethically, if not illegal, to the Department of Justice’s opinion.
Guiney: And it’s not just that the administration’s actions here are illegal. There is some reason to be concerned about the Military appointees themselves. Heritage Senior Fellow Mike Gonzalez has written extensively about American cultural issues, and he says that many of the recent troubling trends in our society are reflected in these picks for high positions within our Military.
Mike Gonzalez: I’m in the Davis Center of Foreign Policy, but I actually have been doing a lot for the last four or five years internally, domestically, Black Lives Matter, critical race theory. I guess, I began to notice around 2017, 2018, that our biggest threat was internal. We had a lot of internal enemies, people, real Marxists, cultural Marxists, but Marxists who have a view of life that is oppressor versus oppressed, and all that, victims versus white supremacists.
White supremacists doesn’t mean actual white supremacists. It means the way all of America works. I thought that they really were trying to make a bid to change America’s way of life, and I started turning my attention more and more to them and writing more and more about them and writing books about them. The rest of the country, I think, has caught up with that, especially after 2020, when we experienced an outbursts of violence and the real attempt at changing all of society. Whether it will succeed or not remains an open question.
Guiney: You’ve done some writing on this situation with Senator Tuberville. How does it overlap with your area of study?
Gonzalez: What Senator Tommy Tuberville has done is that, he has put a lock on appointments on the promotion to generals and admirals. It’s about 300 that President Biden has proposed and the Senate has to approve, but we’re buying into the fallacy that we have a division between the two groups, the oppressed and the oppressors, that the hegemonic narrative of the oppressor class is white supremacy. But that does not mean at all the ugly view that whites are superior. Now, there are people who believe that. There are people, who are ugly people out there, who are racist and all that. We just saw that in Jacksonville. That is a scourge that we have to fight.
But in the hands of the woke, in the hands of critical race theory and its architects, what supremacy means, the way everything works, everything about America. The Boy Scouts, schedules, putting on a tie or putting on a jacket, the ordinary business of society, in the words of Richard Delgado. If you believe that we’re structurally, systemically and institutionally racist, the only logical conclusion is that we have to overhaul the high weight of sweeping change of the institutions, the structures, and the system.
Guiney: We can be res ... But some do. Can you speak to that?
Gonzalez: Yeah. I can say with certainty that not all 300 are woke. That would be atrocious if all 300 are woke, and I think many of these 300 are probably very worthy candidates. Perhaps, probably the majority of them are worthy candidates, which means that considering each candidate on his or her merit is probably the thing to do here. I think that our Military capability or Military readiness would be weakened if we have increasingly a cadre of leaders in the Armed Forces who believe that the color of your skin or the person you choose to love, really are the most important thing about you, and not other virtues and not other principles that you hold dear, and not your character and not your ability to be a good commander, to be a leader.
Leadership quality is not found in everybody. That’s why CEOs make the money that they do. That’s why generals make the money that they do. You either have leadership qualities or you don’t. I can assure you that our adversaries, China and Russia and Iran and Cuba and Venezuela, are not really promoting on the basis of race or gender, or sex or attraction. They’re promoting people who want to kill us. We have to promote people who want to defend us.
Guiney: There’s a quote that you mentioned from President Biden in your article that says, “What Senator Tuberville is doing is not only wrong, it is dangerous. In this moment of rapidly evolving security environments and intense competition, he’s risking our ability to ensure that the United States Armed Forces remain the greatest fighting force in the history of the world.” What would you say to the president?
Gonzalez: Yeah, that’s laughable for Biden to do this. You’re not supposed to engage in politics when you’re in the Military. You’re supposed to be bipartisan and down the line, a straight shooter. We cannot have people who are engaging in domestic politics in one side or the other. I think that it is really galling for President Biden to say this about Tommy Tuberville when it is him who is putting our Military readiness history of making woke statements-
Guiney: Ben Johnson.
Gonzalez: Ben Johnson. Right. But there’s also General Brown, who’s the head of the Air Force right now, who Biden has proposed to the top Military position, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He’s bought into this, into the idea that we have an oppressive society, that we have systemic racism. He made a video about that. But he’s also been very clear in memos that he’s signed, that he will hire and promote on the basis of race in order to have a diverse Air Force. And that’s unconstitutional. You can’t do that.
Now, to begin with, the Armed Services, I never served, I must say that, but as a journalist, I was around the Military. I was a correspondent in Korea for two years. I went to the bases there many times. I went to the base practically once a week for the two years I lived there. I went to Panmunjom. I saw that the demilitarized zone, and I was always gratified to see how integrated the Military is. It’s an Armed Forces that really does reflect America in the sense demographically, but it should not do that on purpose. It should just do that on talent, and that’s not what General Brown has said he will do.
Guiney: It is tough and uncomfortable to have serious political fights like this one, which is part of the reason why Senator Tuberville’s stance is so unique. But that discomfort is part of serving one’s nation well. Cody had this thought, which I think is a fitting one to end today’s show.
Sargent: When I think about this topic and what Senator Tuberville is doing and the people that it’s affecting, I think of one of my favorite quotes from Margaret Thatcher, who, obviously, is one of the guiding lights of The Heritage Foundation. But in a debate when she was Prime Minister, she said, “Yes, the medicine is harsh. But if the patient requires it, do we withhold the medicine? No, because we are right.” And that is exactly what I think is happening in this situation. Yes, this medicine is somewhat harsh, but the patient requires it.
The patient, the US Military, is sick with a disease of wokeness and politicization that is infiltrating and hurting everyone. While this medicine, this dose of reality from Coach Tuberville may be tough for some people to swallow, it’s absolutely necessary to treat an institution that should be revered and respected, but is coming dangerously close to losing that respect of the American people because of leaders like the Secretary of Defense and others in the Biden Administration.
Guiney: Thank you to Cody Sargent and Mike Gonzalez for contributing to today’s show. And thank you to you, as always, for listening to Heritage Explains. You can find Cody on X, formerly Twitter, @codydsargent, and Mike at the same spot, @Gundisalvus, as well as at heritage.org.
Today’s show notes will include a link to Mike’s piece in the Washington Examiner, his book, The Plot to Change America: How Identity Politics is Dividing the Land of the Free, as well as a commentary from Heritage President Dr. Kevin Roberts on his support for Senator Tuberville.
If you have any thoughts, feedback, or suggestions for future episodes, send them our way at heritageexpla[email protected]. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.
Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It’s written and produced by Mark Guiney, Lauren Evans, and John Popp. Production assistance by Alexa Walker and Jeff Smith.