COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville is facing backlash for remarks he made about white nationalists in the armed forces in an interview about his blocking of military nominees. He said that while Democrats may consider such people to be racists, "I call them Americans."
Tuberville said Thursday that his comments had been misinterpreted. His office said he had been expressing skepticism at the idea that white nationalists were in the armed services.
The first-term senator from Alabama made his initial remarks in an interview last week with WBHM, an NPR affiliate. He suggested that the Biden administration's efforts to expand diversity in the military were weakening the force and hampering recruitment, though the Army has said that the real problem is that many young people do not see enlistment as safe or a good career path.
"We are losing in the military so fast. Our readiness in terms of recruitment," Tuberville said, according to the station's transcript of the May 4 interview. "And why? I'll tell you why. Because the Democrats are attacking our military, saying we need to get out the white extremists, the white nationalists, people that don't believe in our agenda."
When asked if he believed white nationalists should be allowed in the U.S. military, Tuberville responded, "Well, they call them that. I call them Americans."
Responding to criticism of his comments, Tuberville said Thursday at the U.S. Capitol that he had been trying to refute the notion that all supporters of former President Donald Trump are white nationalists.
"Democrats portray all Trump people as white nationalists. That's what I was saying ..." Tuberville said. "There's a lot of good people that are Trump supporters that for some reason my Democratic colleagues want to portray as white nationalists. That's not true."
The comments came as Tuberville continued to hold up Senate approval of a slew of military appointments over his opposition to Pentagon abortion policies. Those policies provide travel funds and support for troops and dependents who seek abortions but are based in states where they are now illegal.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Wednesday that he won't support a fellow GOP senator's blockade of military nominees, backing Democrats and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who have said that the holdup is harming national security.
Tuberville is objecting to the normally routine practice of confirming dozens of military nominations, a move that would force the Senate to hold potentially hundreds of votes to confirm non-controversial senior military officers. Tuberville has not backed down from his now-monthslong pledge to hold up the nominees over the Pentagon's abortion policy, which provides travel funds and support for troops and dependents who seek abortions but are based in states where they are now illegal.
"No, I don't support putting a hold on military nominations," McConnell told reporters, in response to a question about Tuberville's blockade. "I don't support that. But as to why, you'll have to ask Sen. Tuberville."
Information for this article was contributed by Meg Kinnard, Lolita C. Baldor and Mary Clare Jalonick of The Associated Press.