“All night of the 29th, you guys are taking me from gate, to gate, to gate, to gate, to gate, to gate, to gate trying to get these individuals in HKIA,” Mullin said, referring to the Hamid Karzai International Airport. “The State Department was stopping us every step of the way.”
After driving the three-year-old girl across the border to Tajikistan, the U.S. ambassador there told Mullin “I was told by Washington, D.C., not to assist you in any way,” the senator said during the hearing. The girl ultimately died, Mullin said, noting that he sent State Department officials pictures of her from his phone.
“For you to sit there and say that every American who wanted to get out got out, you’re absolutely lying. And you know that to be factual and you say it with a straight face,” he said.
Chollet has been nominated to replace Colin Kahl as the top official advising the Pentagon chief on all matters related to policymaking. Kahl was one of Biden’s most controversial nominees, and only barely scraped through confirmation after facing sharp questions over his harsh criticism of Republicans on social media and support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Republicans have said they want to reset relations with the policy chief after having a rocky relationship with Kahl, and Chollet is considered likely to be approved by the committee. But that didn’t stop some of them from asking tough questions about the Afghanistan withdrawal and other Biden-era decisions.
During Thursday’s hearing, Mullin hounded Chollet for an answer on whether anyone in the Biden administration has been held accountable for the “disastrous withdrawal.”
“Has anybody been held accountable?” said Mullin, who made repeated requests of the U.S. government to travel to Kabul during the evacuation to rescue American citizens. He’s since become an outspoken critic of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“Senator, accountability is critically important–”
“No, I’m saying has anybody been held accountable?” Mullin interrupted. “That’s a simple one. It’s a yes or no.”
Other Republicans also went after Chollet for the Afghanistan evacuation. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the committee’s ranking member, said Chollet’s comments suggesting the decision to leave Afghanistan was “strategically sound” caused him concern.
During his questioning, Wicker referenced Biden’s interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos pledging to get all Americans out of the country.
“When did you realize that the president was not going to do this?” Wicker asked.
Chollet acknowledged his role in the withdrawal and touted the administration’s evacuation of 120,000 people in August 2021, and 15,000 since then.
Chollet also took heat from Republicans for his defense of former President Barack Obama’s time in office, his comments to The Associated Press in 2018 that the notion of a security threat at the southern border was “preposterous,” and remarks to The New York Times in 2020 that “The Army in particular is a pretty bubba-oriented system.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) asked Chollet repeatedly what was more important to the Navy: warfighting and shipbuilding, or climate change. After Chollet refused to bite, Sullivan said the nominee’s answer was “extremely disappointing.”
“The biggest concern so many of us have is the civilians at the Pentagon are shoving down a system of values that don’t relate to warfighting, don’t work relate to lethality,” Sullivan said.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked Chollet to say what he thought of the Biden administration’s timeframe for sending military equipment to Ukraine.
“In retrospect, do you agree there’s any weapon system that the Biden administration should have sent earlier than it finally ended up sending them, or do you think it’s pitched a perfect game on every decision?” Cotton asked.
Chollet acknowledged that the administration’s approach to Ukraine has not been “perfect,” but said he’s “satisfied” with the amount of assistance the U.S. has given to Kyiv.
“I don’t think anyone presumes there’s been a perfect game pitch, for sure,” Chollet said.
If the committee decides to approve Chollet’s nomination, full Senate confirmation is still unlikely due to Sen. Tommy Tuberville‘s (R-Ala.) hold on all Pentagon nominees in protest of the agency’s abortion travel policy.