Meet the ex-food writer advising Tommy Tuberville on national security

When Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) wanted to stop a new Defense Department policy that helped ensure access to abortions for service members after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the former college football coach sought advice from his top military aide, a former food critic.

“I explained all his options to him,” said Morgan Murphy, a Navy captain who once sold his own line of bacon products and who now serves as Tuberville’s national security adviser. The option the senator ultimately chose was to single-handedly stall the promotion of more than 200 senior U.S. military officers.

It was spicy dollop of political brinkmanship into a process that is often blandly nonpolitical. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a military veteran herself, said Tuberville was “holding the entire nation’s national security hostage for his own personal social agenda.” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the top-ranking Republican in the Senate, said he disagreed with the maneuver. Lloyd Austin, the secretary of Defense, has called Tuberville’s blockade “a clear risk to U.S. military readiness.”

But Murphy — who, like his boss, took an improbable route to Washington in the wake of Donald Trump — thought the gambit could work as long as Tuberville could stand the heat.

“The goal was to get the secretary to respond,” Murphy told me on a recent Friday afternoon outside the Dirksen office building, peeling soft-boiled eggs and dropping them into a glass jar filled with fresh salad fixings. “If you don’t write back, if you don’t answer letters, if you don’t answer queries … the nice way to say it is, ‘Fool around and find out.’”

Austin’s response so far has been mostly to call the scope of Tuberville’s gridlocking maneuver “unprecedented.”

Since Trump’s presidency, it seems that things in Washington have gotten more and more…. unprecedential. That may be in part because of the arrival, in Trump’s slipstream, of politicians who were elected specifically because they came from outside the traditional political pipeline.

The rise of political novices has, in turn, elevated the importance of the advisers who influence them. And when it comes to Tuberville’s one-man blockade of Pentagon appointees, the Alabama senator may never have known which norm to break without Morgan Murphy, whose past life included a stint at Vanity Fair, a tour in Afghanistan and multiple appearances on the home-shopping network QVC.

“I am, at heart, a storyteller,” Murphy said to me, sitting in a Senate coffee shop in late 2021.

He was trim, with blue eyes and close-cropped curly hair. He was wearing a three-piece wool suit in olive green, with a red checked tie and matching pocket square. According to people who know him, Murphy had been dressing like this at least since his days as at Vanity Fair, where he worked after college.

I met Murphy earlier that year while working on an article about Tuberville’s first year in office. The senator was an interesting subject, but I was equally drawn to Murphy, who resembled his boss in some ways — the Southern drawl, the raconteur charm. The political part of the adviser’s story intrigued me because it resembled the story of the recent Republican Party: He’d voted against Trump in the 2016 primary, enthusiastically supported him in the 2020 election, and then grew a bit tired of him when the party seemed to maybe be moving on — only to come around again once it became clear that Trump was maintaining his grip on the GOP. He was an outsider who came to town and quickly learned how to play an insider’s game.

But I was just as taken in by the stories Murphy told about his life before he got to Washington, which were sometimes so good that they almost seemed too good.

As a young man who moved from Alabama to New York City in the mid-’90s for a career in journalism, Murphy sang in the Blue Hill Troupe, a premier Gilbert and Sullivan performance group. He got married in a Long Island mansion he said was rumored to have housed F. Scott Fitzgerald for a time while he wrote “The Great Gatsby.”

Murphy was a writer himself, specializing in adventure, humor essays and food criticism. Forbes once dispatched him to Wyoming to snowmobile through the Grand Tetons, where he wrote about yelping as he “chased a pair of coyotes over a frozen meadow.” Southern Living sent him in search of mom-and-pop restaurants with recipes worth reporting to the wider world. That gig came with an internet show, produced by the magazine, where Murphy fashioned himself as something of a cross between the sophisticated Anthony Bourdain and the greasy-spoon aficionado Guy Fieri.

“I like to say Czech yo Slovakia befo’ you wreck yo Slovakia,” he once said in a local news television segment about a Texas joint that specialized in kolaches, a Czech pastry.

Later, he would appear on QVC to evangelize a recipe for bread pudding that involves a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts — credited to a place called Menton’s in Louisville — in a segment promoting his book “Off the Eaten Path: On the Road Again.”

His writing interests were not limited to food and recreation. In 2010, Murphy co-authored a book of essays titled “I Love You — Now Hush.” It was a throwback project about the differences between men and women, with insights about how men would rather their lawn mower end up ablaze and dangling from a tree rather than be forced to follow an instruction manual to fix it.

“I don’t like stopping for directions,” he wrote in a chapter about how men don’t like stopping for directions. “Because, I don’t get lost. I may be temporarily waylaid, somewhat off course, slightly detained, in uncharted waters, vaguely unsure of the fastest route to my ultimate destination, or beyond cellphone range, but I am emphatically, definitely, never lost.”

At around that time Murphy left one road and join another. He and his wife tried to conceive a child, but were unable to do so; the struggle to conceive taxed his marriage, according to Murphy, and the couple ended up divorcing. (Murphy’s ex-wife did not respond to an interview request.)

He’d never thought much about the topic of abortion, but now the idea that someone would willingly decide to terminate a pregnancy seemed “morally repugnant.”

Murphy, who had joined the Naval reserves in 1999, decided he’d rather serve in Afghanistan than deal with the gossiping “ladies of Birmingham” who would almost certainly have thoughts about his crumbled marriage. He deployed in 2010 and served as a director of media outreach during Operation Enduring Freedom, briefing Gen. David Petraeus on a regular basis and interacting with the media.

He returned home from war in 2011, and spent four years writing his food books before going to work with his sister and father at the family’s public relations agency. In 2017 he tried launching a line of bacon he called Victory Bacon.

The bacon venture failed, and when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Murphys’ family business — which relied heavily on hotel clients — looked like it might falter, too. In the midst of all this, in March of 2020, Murphy was recalled from active duty to work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. There was a plus side to a struggling hotel industry: Murphy moved into the Willard — an iconic five-star hotel that was almost completely empty and offering dirt-cheap rates.

“The best word in the English language,” Murphy once told me, “is ‘housekeeper.’”

His initial job at the Pentagon was to run their social media accounts, but he moved up quickly, becoming the de facto press secretary within months of arriving. He was in the secretary of Defense’s office on Jan. 6, 2021, furiously scribbling notes while, he said, congressional leaders like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and McConnell called in a panic.

Murphy had been told that he could stay on in his job at the Pentagon after Biden took office — that since he was in uniform and not political, he wouldn’t be considered radioactive by the next administration. But he worried that if he stayed he’d be “probably be handing out towels at the Pentagon gym.” There were, he said, already people in the building who resented him.

“I was just a reservist who had come in and within a week had been given a job overseeing social media and within three months had been given the job as press secretary,” he said. “There were a lot of full-time, active-duty people who looked at me like: who is this guy? Why did they hire him? Why does he get to go to Africa? Why does he get to go to China? They were jealous, really. I would have been too had I been toiling away at the Pentagon and some huckleberry from Alabama, some damn food critic, comes in and gets to be press secretary. I’d be pissed too.”

Murphy wanted a job where he could be treated like an expert, not a towel boy. And in an odd twist, he found what he was looking for in the office of a former college football coach.

Murphy was a fun guy to talk to in the way of most skilled storytellers — and of Washington pros who charm members of the press for a living. He was clearly smart (he’d gotten an MBA from Oxford), a well-rounded hobbyist (he collected and fixed up old cars, and was a capable stained-glass artist), and he enjoyed sipping a good cocktail. And yet, there were times during my reporting when I wondered whether Murphy might be prone to exaggerating parts of his story.

Like when he told me that, during his Afghanistan deployment, he once found himself “in a foxhole with Marcus Brauchli,” a former executive editor at The Washington Post.

“We spent the day at a Polish garrison hearing about agriculture production and lunched at an American contractor-run cafeteria that looked straight out of a Midwestern high school,” Brauchli said in an email when I wrote to ask him about that “foxhole” Murphy said they shared.

“[Officials] later insisted we were under rocket fire,” he said, “to give us a touch of excitement and a story to tell, I suppose.”

(Murphy maintains that they “came under mortar attack” and that they took shelter in a “cement culvert” for about 20 minutes.)

Or how he told me that, when working for Vanity Fair after college, he was the “personal assistant” to the legendary editor Graydon Carter.

“Morgan was never anyone’s assistant,” said Aimee Bell, who worked for the magazine at the time, in an email. “He was far too, well, Morgan-ish for that sort of position.” (Later, Murphy told me: “I assisted him, but I was never his full-time personal assistant.”)

What’s Morgan-ish? Carter himself told me a story that has become somewhat legendary in Vanity Fair circles. Once, Murphy bumped into him in the elevator and said something along the lines of, “I haven’t seen you around lately.”

“I thought it was just incredibly cheeky and rude,” Carter recalled recently in an email.

Later, Murphy said got a call from a supervisor (Bell) telling him he probably shouldn’t “tell the hardest working guy at Condé Nast that you haven’t seen him in the office.”

“A few days later,” Carter told me, “I heard that Morgan was telling people outside the magazine that I had sent around an edict that staff members weren’t allowed to address me in public.” There was no such edict, he said. (Murphy denied he spread rumors about this.)

Another one: Murphy told me he used to date the winner of a Miss Alabama contest, and that the contest winner had a handler, named Nan Tannenbaum. “She told me of all the ‘Miss Alabama’ boyfriends, I was always her favorite,” he said.

When I called Tannenbaum to check it out, she said Murphy had seemed nice enough — but didn’t think she’d ever said such a thing. (“I don’t know what to say about that one,” Murphy said. “Maybe she didn’t.”)

Serving as national security adviser to a U.S. senator seems to appeal to a grandiose part of Murphy’s imagination. “I often think about what it would have been like to be a defense minister in 1939,” he once told me. “What advice would I have given Churchill?”

Tuberville is not Churchill. Before taking office, the ex-football coach seemed a bit iffy on the basics of government, alluding to the three branches of government as “the House, the Senate and the executive.” And, of course, he objected on Jan. 6, 2021, to the certification of President Biden’s win, despite a lack of credible evidence to support Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud.

The senator has made missteps since Murphy came aboard, too, including on matters related to national security. Last year, in a speech to the Montgomery, Ala.-area chamber of commerce, Tuberville called current-day Russia a “communist country” (it is not) and said Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine because “he can’t feed his people” — due to the communism — “so they need more farmland,” according to a report in 1819 News. More recently, he seemed to defend white nationalists serving in the American military (Tuberville said his comments were misconstrued).

When Murphy looks at his boss, he doesn’t see a guy struggling to adjust to the demands of his new position. He sees a guy who is good at making connections while being unafraid of going it alone on matters of principle. He also sees a guy who cares about the military, who is empowered to conduct oversight (Tuberville sits on the Armed Services Committee), and who takes Murphy’s advice seriously.

“Getting to advise Coach is great,” Murphy told me. “He has never contradicted me. He trusts me to help make decisions and that’s gratifying.”

Murphy didn’t need to persuade Tuberville to take action when the DoD issued a policy memo late last year that said the department would provide money and time off for service members who needed to travel to a different state for a legal abortion. But he did help explain to Tuberville the parliamentary move he could use to challenge it: Normally many top military nominations move quickly through the Senate by unanimous consent, but it only takes one person to object and slow things to a crawl. The move has been used before. As recently as 2020, Duckworth held up Pentagon nominations. But that only lasted about two weeks. Tuberville has been stalling for more than three months.

If the Democrats think they can just wait out his boss, Murphy told me, they will be surprised. The fight is bigger than just abortion, he said; it’s about a “mission creep” of a “tyrannical executive branch.” It should be Congress, Murphy argues, not the Department of Defense that makes the rules about how to spend taxpayer dollars.

And to hear the national security adviser tell it, the standoff has bought Tuberville a lot of goodwill.

“I told him at the beginning that he was going to be hearing from every golf buddy he ever had, ‘Hey, my brother-in-law is up for brigadier general,’” Murphy said in the Russell courtyard. “And sure enough, those calls started. But after people saw he was serious, he got a massive influx of support.”

It’s possible that Tuberville is being underestimated and that he has more leverage than traditional Washington is willing to admit. Or that could be a bit of an exaggeration.

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