Compared with some of the other events taking place on Capitol Hill this week, Mark Esper’s confirmation as defense secretary on Tuesday was a largely drama-free affair: Esper, a former lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon, sailed through with a 90–8 vote, ending the longest period without a confirmed secretary in the history of the Defense Department.
Esper is one of three acting secretaries who’ve served since Jim Mattis resigned in December, including Patrick Shanahan, who was initially nominated by President Donald Trump to take on the role permanently but withdrew from consideration in June amid revelations of domestic violence involving his ex-wife and son. At a time when the president is casually talking about killing 10 million people in Afghanistan, it makes sense that Esper was an uncontroversial nominee, but outside the Trumpian context, it’s still regrettable that he didn’t face a little more scrutiny. At this point, senators might have voted for anyone with a pulse to take over the Pentagon. Esper boasts not only a pulse but a résumé that includes fighting in the Army during the first Gulf War, extensive experience in defense policy, and a positively regarded tenure as secretary of the Army. The answers he gave during his written and public testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee reveal very conventional defense establishment—as opposed to Trumpian—views: He believes in the value of U.S. alliances including NATO, views Russia as an adversary, and is wary of hasty troop withdrawals.
But as Edwin Djabatey and Kate Brannen of Just Security note, it’s astonishing that Esper did not face a single question about Afghanistan—America’s longest war—in his confirmation hearing. In his written testimony, he said that the withdrawal of troops from the conflict should be “conditions-based”—but we have very little idea from his testimony what those conditions might be. As Djabatey and Brannen also point out, Esper listed three objectives for the ongoing U.S. military mission in Syria: fighting the remnants of ISIS, reaching a political settlement for the Syrian civil war, and pushing for the withdrawal of Iranian troops from the conflict. The last two objectives were definitely never authorized by Congress. The first arguably isn’t either; U.S. troops were sent to Syria by the Obama administration under the auspices of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed before ISIS even existed. (Esper opposes canceling or amending the authorization.)
Esper also supports keeping the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay open, and keeping active-duty troops on the southern U.S. border.
Then there’s the Raytheon issue. The contractor produces electronics for a wide array of U.S. combat systems. Esper spent seven years as the company’s top lobbyist in Washington. The most contentious moment of Esper’s confirmation hearing on July 16 came when Sen. Elizabeth Warren pressed him on his ties to his former company and refusal to pledge to recuse himself from any decisions affecting Raytheon’s business throughout his tenure in government. Esper said he could not do that based on the advice of department ethics advisers, though he did promise to recuse himself from discussions involving a proposed merger of Raytheon and another company. Warren wasn’t having it, noting that Shanahan had made such a pledge with regard to his former employer, Boeing, and telling Esper, “This smacks of corruption, plain and simple.”
With Esper’s confirmation, four Trump Cabinet departments will be led by former lobbyists. Despite Trump’s executive order requiring officials not to lobby the agencies where they once worked for five years after leaving government, ProPublica reported in February that at least 33 former officials have found their way around the pledge. The swamp is far from drained.
Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe actually apologized to Esper for Warren’s questioning. Sen. Rick Scott joked, “I guess she just needed a moment for her presidential campaign.”
It is true that of the eight Democratic senators who voted against Esper’s confirmation, five—Warren, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar—are running for president. Bernie Sanders did not vote.
Republicans would describe this as campaign grandstanding, but it is notable that none of the senators whose records will face the greatest public scrutiny in the coming year wants a vote for Esper on that record.
The problems with Esper may not rate high on the scale of Trump-era outrages. They’re not even new. Esper and Republican senators pointed out during the hearings that Barack Obama had also named officials with lobbyist backgrounds to senior Pentagon positions, including Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Lynn, another former Raytheon lobbyist. In both his views on military force and his career path, Esper demonstrates problems in Washington—and reasons for public frustration— that predated this administration.