WASHINGTON – The chairman of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee said Tuesday he'll hold up President Donald Trump's nominees for key Defense Department posts until the administration delivers details about its new strategy for the war in Afghanistan.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said his committee needs the particulars in order to properly outfit the U.S. armed forces with training and equipment.
"If we don't get the information we need, we can't do that," he told reporters.
McCain said the Trump administration acts as though Congress isn't a co-equal branch of government, "and that they don't have to respond to what the Constitution says."
Trump in August outlined in broad strokes his plan for Afghanistan, declaring that American troops would "fight to win" by attacking enemies, "crushing" al-Qaida and preventing terrorist attacks against Americans. As part of the plan, the Pentagon is boosting troop numbers by about 3,500, augmenting the roughly 11,000 Americans currently stationed there.
What remains unclear to the committee, according to McCain, is how this modest increase in troop strength can turn the tide in Afghanistan when that goal couldn't be achieved with tens of thousands of U.S. forces.
Trump also said the U.S. would shift from a "time-based" approach, instead linking its assistance to results and to cooperation from the beleaguered Afghan government, Pakistan and others. McCain said he wants to know what those conditions are. He also is seeking answers for how and when Trump would accomplish his goal of a political settlement in Afghanistan that includes elements of the Taliban.
McCain said he has great respect for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and doesn't "want any differences between us." But he said the flow of information between his committee and the Pentagon on important military issues was better during the Obama administration, when Ash Carter served as the top civilian official at the Defense Department.
"We may not have agreed, but there was a lot of communications," McCain said of Carter.
A Senate website shows 17 Defense Department nominations before the committee that could be affected by the impasse. Among them are Mark Esper, the nominee for Army secretary; Joseph Kernan, the nominee for undersecretary of defense for intelligence; and Robert Wilkie, the nominee for undersecretary of personnel and readiness.
"I have no idea, nor do I care," McCain said when he was asked how many nominees are being delayed.
McCain is making exceptions, however. The Senate late last month confirmed Gen. Joseph Dunford for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after McCain's committee approved the nomination. And on Tuesday the Senate confirmed David Trachtenberg to be principal deputy undersecretary of defense.
Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner