Esper's Industry Ties May Haunt Him in SecDef Confirmation Hearing

Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper waits for the arrival of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to the Pentagon in Washington, Monday, July 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper waits for the arrival of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to the Pentagon in Washington, Monday, July 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Army Secretary Mark Esper is set to face a Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday to become the next secretary of defense, ending the longest period in history that the Pentagon has been without an official in the permanent post.

Esper is slated to fill the void in Pentagon leadership left by the abrupt December resignation of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Mattis departed due to a policy rift with President Donald Trump over the withdrawal of troops from Syria.

"This position is far too important to our national security to continue being filled on an acting basis for any longer," Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, who will preside as chairman of an expedited Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, said in a statement last month.

However, Esper's former position as the top lobbyist for Raytheon Co. could make the hearing contentious. Last month, Raytheon and United Technologies Corp. announced a plan to merge, creating an aerospace and defense giant second only to Boeing in sales.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, a committee member, on Monday released a letter she had sent to Esper demanding that he recuse himself from decisions involving the merged firms. She said he refused, although he had previously recused himself from Raytheon decisions as Army secretary.

"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 through the duration of your tenure at DoD," Warren said in the letter, first reported by Bloomberg.

Warren, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, said she met with Esper last week and was "extremely disappointed by your unwillingness to take the steps needed to clear any ethics cloud related to your former lobbying work for Raytheon."

Esper's speedy confirmation as defense secretary is expected to anchor efforts to stop the musical chairs-style changes of leadership in top Pentagon posts that have left at least 16 positions vacant or filled by officials serving in an acting capacity.

The disarray has at times made the Pentagon look indecisive and left allies, and foes, wondering who is in charge.

In a prime example, the Pentagon last Friday announced that two top officials would brief on NATO ally Turkey's acceptance of S-400 anti-air missile systems from Russia, which the U.S. military, the White House and congressional leadership had repeatedly warned against.

The officials had been expected to discuss whether the U.S. would cut off the sale of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to Turkey and possibly impose sanctions against Turkish officials, but the briefing was delayed and then postponed indefinitely with no reasons given.

The process to confirm Esper has also been marked by confusion. He had been acting defense secretary since June 18, taking over from former Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who withdrew from consideration for the permanent post to avoid questions about his messy divorce.

Esper was required to step down as acting secretary under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, which bars officials serving in an acting position from succeeding to the permanent post. However, by midday Monday, Esper was still listed by the Defense Department as acting secretary since the White House had yet to send his formal nomination papers to the Senate.

The formal notification was sent to the Senate at 3:04 p.m., and Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer took over as acting defense secretary.

Esper, 55, of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, graduated from West Point in 1986 in the same class as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and earned a meritorious Bronze Star in Operation Desert Storm. He served on active duty for 10 years, then moved to the Army Reserve, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

He holds a doctorate in public policy from George Washington University. He was chief of staff for the conservative Heritage Foundation and vice president for government relations at Raytheon.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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