Army Secretary Mark Esper appeared headed to easy confirmation as defense secretary until late in his Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday morning, when he was confronted by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.
In heated exchanges, Warren demanded to know whether Esper would recuse himself on Defense Department decisions involving Raytheon, decline to seek waivers that would allow him to weigh in on Raytheon matters and agree to refrain from lobbying for four years after he leaves office.
On all three issues, Esper said, "No, I won't."
"This is outrageous," Warren said. "That means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense."
Esper worked for seven years as Raytheon’s top lobbyist before assuming his current role as Army secretary. When he took the post in 2017, he agreed to recuse himself for two years on Raytheon matters; that agreement expires in November.
Warren cited the example of former Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former top executive at Boeing, who recused himself from any matters involving the company for the duration of his service at the Defense Department.
"I can't explain why he made that commitment," Esper said of Shanahan.
Warren said, "I'll take that as a 'Yes,' you're not willing to make that commitment."
In a letter to Esper she released Monday, Warren wrote, "I am troubled by your unwillingness to fully address your real and perceived conflicts of interest, and write to ask that you reconsider your refusal to extend your Raytheon recusal [as Army secretary] through the duration of your tenure at DoD."
After Warren left the hearing room, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, the committee's chairman, took the unusual step of apologizing to Esper on behalf of the committee. "I apologize for what you had to be confronted with. It was unfair," he said.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, the next questioner, sought to defend Esper's corporate ties.
Sullivan said that, in Warren's view, "Anybody who comes from the corporate world is corrupt."
He asked Esper: "Have you ever been accused of corruption?"
Esper responded, "No sir, never in my life."
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, later charged that Warren had "demonized" Esper because he had worked in the corporate sector.
"I guess she just needed a moment for her presidential campaign," Scott said of Warren, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Earlier, Inhofe noted the challenge Esper would face in countering China and Russia under the National Defense Strategy while turning around a military that has been focused on counterterrorism since the 9/11 attacks.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, warned Esper of the pitfalls ahead in serving as the chief military advisor to an unpredictable commander-in-chief.
He said it would be Esper's duty to give his best advice "even if the president disagrees with your counsel and it runs contrary to his policy goals."
Reed also stressed that it is critical for Esper to end the constant reshuffle of top Pentagon leadership that has taken place since Mattis left.
"I am concerned that the Defense Department is adrift," Reed said in reference to at least 16 top posts at the Pentagon that are either vacant or have officials serving in an acting position.
In later testimony, Esper echoed Reed's concerns, stressing the "need to staff up the top tier of the Pentagon soonest."
He told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, that he had met Monday with White House officials on the personnel problems and "urged them to help us push folks through."
On several issues currently in dispute between the House and Senate in the defense policy bill, Esper supported positions taken by Senate Republicans.
He backed keeping the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility open; opposed changing the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks; and supported keeping active-duty and National Guard troops on the southern border to aid Customs and Border Protection agents.
Esper became emphatic in supporting more investment in the military's utilization of artificial intelligence to stay ahead of advances made by China.
"It's a fundamental game changer" for the military, he said. "We have to get there first. Whoever gets there first will dominate."
In discussing NATO ally Turkey's purchase of the S-400 anti-air missile systems from Russia, Esper appeared to suggest that the S-400 would be effective against the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as Moscow has claimed.
Esper said the S-400 "undermines the capabilities of the F-35," and added that Turkey's purchase of the system despite repeated warnings from the U.S. will have consequences that include barring the country from the F-35 program.
Turkey has to understand that "you can have the S-400 or you can have the F-35," but not both, he said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.