Secretary of the Army Mark Esper sailed through a relatively sleepy confirmation hearing for the job of defense secretary — save for one heated exchange with 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) over his ties to a major defense contractor.
The back-and-forth between Esper and Warren was practically advertised ahead of the hearing, after the Massachusetts senator laid out in a July 11 letter her concerns about an “ethics cloud” and potential conflicts of interest regarding Esper’s past position as a top lobbyist for Raytheon, a major defense contractor based in Warren’s state of Massachusetts.
Esper has a long career in public service; but as Vox’s Caroline Houck wrote, “he was perhaps best known in Washington for the seven years he spent as Raytheon’s top lobbyist.” And that’s what Warren jumped on during the confirmation hearing.
Warren challenged Esper to recuse himself from all matters involving Raytheon for the duration of his government service, something his predecessor, Shanahan, agreed to do so with respect to his former employer, Boeing. Esper is recused from making any decisions affecting Raytheon for two years (which Esper was bound to as Secretary of the Army starting 2017), but that expires in four months.
Esper said he previously told Warren that he would not do that, based on the recommendation of career ethics professionals.
That, Warren said, wasn’t the only ethics problem with this nomination. Warren also wanted Esper to agree that he wouldn’t seek a waiver to his recusal on decisions affecting Raytheon’s business.
“This smacks of corruption, plain and simple,” Warren said. “Will you commit that during your time as defense secretary that you will not seek any waiver that will allow you to participate in matters that affect Raytheon’s financial interests?”
“At any time in the past 20-something months, to include the last three weeks, did I request or seek or receive or be granted any waiver,” Esper replied.
That wasn’t the answer Warren wanted, and the two went back and forth. (“I think this is a good debate,” Esper began, before Warren cut him off with an “I’m not trying to have a debate.”) Esper, ultimately, told Warren that he wouldn’t agree not to seek a waiver, but that he was “going to continue to abide by the rules and regulations” and consult ethics professionals “to make sure we stay in the ethical midfield.”
Finally, Warren pressed Esper to commit to not returning to Raytheon or another defense firm after his time as defense secretary — a pet issue of Warren’s, as she recently introduced legislation and a presidential policy plan to prevent those working at the Pentagon from working for defense firms for years. It’s basically an attempt to end the “revolving door” — officials leaving government and going to work for private firms — at the Defense Department.
Here, too, Esper declined to wait four years to return to Raytheon or anywhere else, but he also defended his service, and dismissed the “presumption” that just because some comes from the business or corporate world that they’re corrupt.
The back-and-forth — the most intense of the hearing — gave Warren a spotlight to highlight her anti-corruption platform as senator, and as a 2020 presidential candidate. (Though, to be fair, she’s previously championed defense contractors like Raytheon, which happens to be based in her state of Massachusetts.)
And Esper, though he wouldn’t commit to Warren’s requests, made clear he’s followed the ethics rules in place now, and intends to continue doing so — which will be more than enough to protect his nomination.
Mark Esper and uncontroversial. It’s pretty much exactly what he needed to do.
Esper became Army secretary in November 2017, and was named acting defense secretary in June after Patrick Shanahan — the No. 2 at the Pentagon, who’d been leading the agency since James Mattis resigned in December — withdrew from consideration following reports of past domestic disputes. (Trump formally nominated Esper this week, forcing him to step aside as acting secretary.)
Esper’s nomination was expedited, as the Pentagon has been without a permanent leader for more than six months — by far the longest an acting official has led the department. And it’s not exactly a great time to have a temp leading the defense agency: Partnerships with our traditional allies are strained, from the United Kingdom to Turkey; the US is engaged in a tense standoff with Iran; China is rising; and the US is still engaged militarily in places such as Afghanistan and Syria.
And, overall, Esper proved himself a capable steward of the Pentagon during a fairly tumultuous time. He did enough to convince Republicans and Democrats alike that he will stand up to Trump when necessary — though he was careful to avoid criticizing the president outright on any issue.
For example, when asked a question about whether Esper’s views are more aligned with former Defense Secretary Mattis (who quit in protest over Trump’s handling of Syria, among other criticisms) or Trump, Esper didn’t quite answer the question, but said he was committed to building alliances and the post-World War II order.
At another point, Esper promised that he would “always give the president and Congress my candid, honest advice,” when asked if he would stand up to Trump. And on a few occasions Esper even praised the Obama administration, giving it “high marks” for calling out Russia for cheating on the INF treaty and for getting NATO allies to meet defense spending goals.
In other words: Esper did what he had to do, and his confirmation — which could come as early as this week — is unlikely to face any major hurdles, with or without Warren.
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