“This is outrageous,” said a senior DOD official, who like others interviewed for this story was granted anonymity to speak about a sensitive topic. “I cannot help but think — because at the end of the day, Eric Smith is a human — that Tuberville’s unnecessary stress that he’s put on the situation where you don’t have a backup … has added a level of complexity and danger to an already bad situation.”
In an interview Wednesday, Tuberville brushed off the comments from the DOD officials.
“They’re looking for someone to blame it on, other than themselves,” he said. “We could have all these people confirmed if they’d have just gone by the Constitution.
“I don’t listen to these people,” he added. “They’re just looking for any possible way to get themselves out of a jam.”
Since Smith’s hospitalization, Senate leaders have moved to bring a handful of senior military nominations, including that of the assistant commandant, to a vote. But the upheaval leaves the Marine Corps lurching at a precarious moment for the U.S., as it supports the wars in Ukraine and Israel while also scrambling to respond to attacks on American forces in the Middle East.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has dispatched Navy ships full of Marines to the region, allowing the Defense Department to order a humanitarian evacuation or another operation at a moment’s notice. Iran-backed groups continue to threaten American troops in the Middle East; U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria have come under attack at least 23 times since Oct. 17.
With a commandant in the hospital and no Senate-confirmed assistant in place, the holds are “cutting off at the knees the advice and counsel that should be going to the chairman and the president,” said the senior DOD official.
Top Biden administration officials may not be getting the “most seasoned, wise, sage advice and counsel” on how to deploy those Marine capabilities, the official said.
Other former and current DOD officials noted that the promotions blockade means there is no backup when a medical emergency or other crisis puts a senior officer out of commission. The Navy and Air Force, meanwhile, have no Senate-confirmed chiefs due to the blockade. And more than a dozen positions in U.S. Central Command are impacted by the hold as war in Israel rages.
“Life happens, and that’s why you have people in these positions,” said a second senior DOD official.
“The fact that there was not a No. 2 there was clearly Tuberville’s fault,” the official added, referring to the Marine Corps. “That lies squarely at Tuberville’s feet.”
Once Smith was hospitalized, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl took over the top post in a temporary role, while still filling his own job as deputy commandant for combat development and integration.
Meanwhile, 25 officers have had their retirements deferred due to the hold, including five who have had to do it twice, said the second senior DOD official.
Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general and former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the lack of confirmed leaders in the highest ranks of the Pentagon “a mission impossible situation.”
“No reflection on Lt. Gen. Heckl but he was not selected to be either the CMC or ACMC,” Punaro wrote in a Tuesday email, referring to the top two jobs in the Corps. “He is NOT the person that the system determined to be the best qualified and best leader for those positions.”
Heckl’s original job, deputy commandant for combat development and integration and commander of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, is also a critical one for the service, as it’s tasked with coming up with new modernization concepts. The post has a large role in how the Corps plans its budgets, a duty that is now in the hands of “a one star and a bunch of Colonels down at Quantico,” a Marine official said.
The armed forces are finalizing their fiscal 2025 budget requests and plans, and instead of three Marine generals filling the three top spots, there is one.
On Tuesday, Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said the holdup may have contributed to Smith’s health problems.
“One of the reasons, I think contributed to his condition was he was doing two jobs at once,” Reed said in a brief interview. “I’ve read where he was working from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. As a result, if he had, as is normal, an assistant, he could switch off.”
The situation, he added, underscored “the fallacy and the danger” of the blockade.
DOD officials stopped short of blaming Tuberville for Smith’s medical emergency, the specifics of which are still not public, although The New York Times, citing people familiar, said Smith had an apparent heart attack. Those officials did say that the stress of doing two extremely demanding jobs at once for months certainly did not help his health.
Senior military officers are used to working long, hard hours. But in Smith’s case, the fact that he had no backup only added to the stress of an already difficult post, said the second senior DOD official.
“Take away the fact that that’s already a very hard position to do, when you don’t have help, when you don’t even have backup, when you don’t have someone that you can offload … that’s a huge responsibility,” the official said.
But the military mindset, particularly in the Marine Corps, is to get the job done despite the shortfalls.
“There are so many external factors pushing against our time and our resources, and to have something that’s internal like this where we can’t even get our own house in order — it’s a distraction,” said a third DOD official.
The Pentagon does not want to acknowledge any vulnerability because doing so might signal weakness to potential adversaries, said the third official.
Still, “the longer this goes on, clearly the more second order effects that are unintended to degrading readiness will certainly show themselves,” the official said.
Asked to respond to Reed’s comments, Tuberville spokesperson Steven Stafford noted that the Senate majority leader could have scheduled individual votes on the top nominees.
“Chuck Schumer could have confirmed him a long time ago so if he is concerned about this nomination — or any other particular nomination — then he needs to look in the mirror,” he said. “The buck stops with him.
“The medical diagnoses of non-physicians who may not even know General Smith are absolutely irresponsible — even by the low standards of Democrats in Washington,” Stafford continued. “Some liberals in this town will say literally anything.”
Paul McLeary, Joe Gould and Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.