WASHINGTON: Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as secretary of defense ended as it began — with a smear.
“Senator Hagel has accused Israel of quote ‘playing games’ and committing, quote, ‘sickening slaughter,’?” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said before Tuesday’s confirmation vote, which had been delayed 12 days by a Republican filibuster.
Minutes later, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, repeated the allegation that Hagel had claimed “Israel committed ‘sickening slaughter.’?”
There was something sickening about this, but it wasn’t Hagel’s quote. As Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., pointed out, what the nominee had in fact said, during a Senate speech on the 2006 Lebanon war, was this: “The sickening slaughter on both sides must end.”
It was one of many moments from the past few weeks that Joe McCarthy would have admired.
Even before Hagel was formally nominated, conservative media had published allegations that the former Republican senator from Nebraska was anti-Semitic. The innuendo reached a whole new level when freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, suggested at a Senate hearing that Hagel may have received speaking fees from “extreme or radical groups,” adding: “It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea.”
Next, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., gave credence to a hoax, published credulously in the conservative press, that Hagel had received funds from a fictitious group called Friends of Hamas. Asked about this by radio host Hugh Hewitt, Paul replied: “You know, I saw that information today, also, and that is more and more concerning.”
The challenges to Hagel’s patriotism continued Tuesday when Inhofe, leading the Republican side in the Senate floor debate, inferred that the nominee, who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, was Iran’s man. “Isn’t it interesting,” he asked, “that Iran supports Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense? … That is a frightening thing.”
The really frightening thing is that Inhofe takes rogue-state propaganda at face value.
Inhofe, who as a veteran legislator should know better, used his time on the Senate floor to defend Cruz’s slander. “I’d walk through fire for the ability of our members on the committee to get all the information that they are entitled to, and he has not received that,” Inhofe said. He said that he had urged Cruz to speak on the Senate floor Tuesday but that Cruz told him, “I’ve been stonewalled. What else can I say?”
How about, “I’m sorry?”
Republican senators congratulated themselves Tuesday for the unprecedented level of opposition they presented; it was the first-ever filibuster of a nominee to head the Pentagon. “Over the last half-century, no secretary of defense has been confirmed and taken office with more than three senators voting against him,” said Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind.
“He will take office with the weakest support of any defense secretary in modern history, which will make him less effective on his job,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
These gentlemen seemed not to grasp that the extraordinary variable here was not Hagel’s candidacy but their unprecedented level of opposition, directed at a former colleague who had become a supporter of President Obama. Their behavior may not be as crass as House Speaker John Boehner’s demand Tuesday that the Senate “gets off their ass” and negotiate spending cuts, but it is more consequential because it affects American standing overseas.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., had said on Fox News Sunday that the opposition to Hagel “sends a signal to our allies as well as our foes that he does not have broad support in the U.S. Congress, which limits his ability to carry out his job.” Perhaps, but the 41 senators who sent that signal on Tuesday were Coburn and his fellow Republicans.
Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, appealed for perspective. “Presidents, regardless of what party they’re from, I think need, for the most part, to have the team they want to put in place,” he said. “They have been elected to lead. Let’s give them a chance to lead. If they screw up, then we hold them accountable.” That, he said, is how “this body used to operate.”
Inhofe had a different view. Filibusters of presidents’ Cabinet nominees happen “all the time,” he argued. As for the insinuations, he said, “Nobody is impugning the integrity of former Senator Hagel.”
No, they merely suggested that he is on the payroll of terrorists and in the pockets of America’s enemies.
Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. He can be emailed at email@example.com.