Esper Nomination Triggers Another Leadership Switch-Up at Pentagon

Executive Leadership portraits at the Pentagon on July 15, 2019, include Richard V. Spencer (bottom left), who will service as acting secretary of defense for the duration of Mark Esper’s confirmation process. (Oriana Pawlyk/Military.com)
Executive Leadership portraits at the Pentagon on July 15, 2019, include Richard V. Spencer (bottom left), who will service as acting secretary of defense for the duration of Mark Esper’s confirmation process. (Oriana Pawlyk/Military.com)

As of Monday afternoon, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer is officially the Pentagon's acting defense secretary, and the Trump administration's fourth SecDef in just seven months' time.

The Senate received the White House's formal nomination for the previous acting defense secretary, Mark Esper, to become the next defense secretary on Monday, according to Pentagon officials.

"At 3:04 p.m., the Senate received the president's formal nomination of Dr. Mark T. Esper to be secretary of defense. At that time, Dr. Esper ceased to serve as acting secretary of defense and is solely serving as secretary of the Army," said Jonathan Hoffman, chief Pentagon spokesman, in a statement.

"As a result, as prescribed in Executive Order 13533, 'Providing an Order of Succession Within the Department of Defense,' March 1, 2010, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer became acting secretary of defense," Hoffman said "As such, Secretary Spencer has the full authority and responsibility of the secretary of defense. The senior team supporting the Office of the Secretary remains in place to ensure institutional continuity."

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Eric Chewning, chief of staff to the acting secretary, told reporters during a briefing that Esper "will stay up-to-date on operational topics" during the confirmation process, but will not be privy to the same level of intelligence briefings as the acting defense secretary.

Hoffman said Thomas Modly, Under Secretary of the Navy, will perform the SecNav's duties while Spencer takes on the acting SecDef role.

Meanwhile, Ryan McCarthy, who was performing the duties of Army secretary while Esper managed his acting SecDef role, has reverted back to his Army under secretary duties, officials said.

Officials have been preparing for the transition for weeks. The complicated exchange of roles is mainly due to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which prohibits a secretary nominee from serving in the role in an acting capacity. To get around the problem, the position of acting defense secretary defaults to Spencer, who is next in the line of succession, until Esper is confirmed.

Spencer will be able to remain in an acting capacity for as long as it takes lawmakers to review Esper's nomination, officials have said.

Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee scheduled a confirmation hearing for Esper to take over the permanent position. The hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Even though the leadership change may only be for a day, it has required some office rearrangement. After the formal nomination was received, Esper physically relocated to his old office, resuming his prior Army secretary role. Meanwhile, Ryan McCarthy, who was performing the duties of Army secretary while Esper managed his acting SecDef role, has reverted back to his Army under secretary duties, officials said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, and ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, last week urged expediency and a thorough vetting process.

"We need Senate-confirmed leadership at the Pentagon, and quickly," Inhofe said in a statement on Esper's hearing.

"We're expediting the process, but there are no shortcuts, and this nominee, like every nominee to this critical post, must be thoroughly vetted and carefully evaluated," Reed added.

During a recent hearing with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Inhofe noted that 12 leadership positions within the Defense Department remain vacant.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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