Trump pick brings scrutiny to 'revolving door' between Pentagon, industry

Trump pick brings scrutiny to 'revolving door' between Pentagon, industry
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The nomination of acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper to the Pentagon’s top post is bringing new attention to concerns about the prevalence of former lobbyists and defense industry officials at the department.

Esper was elevated to the top Defense Department post after Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet Five things to watch for at Defense nominee's confirmation hearing Press: Acosta, latest to walk the plank MORE, the previous acting secretary and a former Boeing executive, withdrew his nomination for permanent secretary after incidents of domestic violence involving a son and ex-wife became public.

While Esper, a West Point graduate who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, is widely expected to be confirmed with bipartisan support, critics say his nomination is part of a trend that has seen the Trump administration fill out top posts at the Pentagon with defense industry officials. And his nomination comes as his former firm Raytheon intends to merge with United Technologies, another prominent defense contractor.

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“I am simultaneously concerned about the increasingly corporate culture at the Department of Defense and the growing consolidation of the defense industry,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “Both trends could have adverse impacts on innovation, competition, and costs, while increasing the potential for private companies to unduly influence national security decisions,” 

Those concerns are not new. When Esper was being confirmed for Army secretary, the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe peculiar priorities of Adam Schiff Ocasio-Cortez fires back at Lindsey Graham: 'Graham wants to bring back 1950s McCarthyism' Meghan McCain knocks Lindsey Graham for defending Trump's tweets: 'This is not the person I used to know' MORE (R-Ariz.), then-chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also raised those issues.

“I would be remiss if I did not reiterate my concerns about the number of nominees from the defense industry filling out the leadership ranks at the Department of Defense,” he said at the time.

Esper’s lobbying stint is only part of a long and distinguished résumé. After serving in the military, Esper worked on Capitol Hill, including as a staffer for then-Sen. Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelTrump's pick for Pentagon chief wins allies on Capitol Hill Trump pick brings scrutiny to 'revolving door' between Pentagon, industry Overnight Defense: Senators plan 22 resolutions to block Saudi arms sale | Trump defends transgender military plan | Trump, lawmakers prep to mark D-Day anniversary MORE (R-Neb.) and for then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). He worked for the Aerospace Industries Association of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before becoming Raytheon’s vice president of government relations in 2010. Esper made The Hill’s Top Lobbyists list as recently as 2016, and in his final year as a lobbyist for Raytheon made more than $1.5 million. 

He was confirmed as secretary of the Army in 2017 and recused himself from matters relating to his former firm. 

“Dr. Esper comes to the position of Acting Secretary of Defense with unrivaled knowledge and understanding of every facet of America and her allies’ security needs,” chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement. “He will continue to abide by his ethics agreement, which has been in place since he assumed the role of secretary of the army.”

Former House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeonHoward (Buck) Philip McKeonTrump pick brings scrutiny to 'revolving door' between Pentagon, industry Bottom line Republican fighter pilot to challenge freshman Dem in key California race MORE (R-Calif.), now a lobbyist, dismissed concerns about Esper’s industry background.

“Acting Secretary Esper had [a] military background and then he had [a] defense company background. It just happened that his particular job in the defense company was in lobbying or government relations,” McKeon, chairman and CEO of the McKeon Group, told The Hill.

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“I’m glad the president named somebody again very quickly, and the fact that he’s serving as secretary of the Army, he’s already been through the vetting process,” he added.

But Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, said connections to big defense companies has “far too often” been a qualifier, rather than a disqualifier, for Pentagon officials.

“The rapidly spinning revolving door between defense contractors and the Pentagon or Defense Department is obvious,” Gilbert said. “There are better qualifying metrics than time spent pushing for corporate interests.”

One top-tier 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' Trump says administration will 'take a look' after Thiel raises concerns about Google, China Thiel calls Warren the most 'dangerous' Democratic candidate MORE (Mass.), has also targeted the issue.

“The Trump admin has outsourced leadership of the Pentagon to the defense industry,” Warren tweeted last week when Esper was named acting secretary. “My bill to #EndCorruptionNow would slam shut the revolving door so there wouldn’t be any question that the Pentagon is working for our national security, not the profits of giant defense companies.”

Warren has proposed imposing a lifetime ban on former lawmakers and Cabinet members from lobbying. In March, she said if elected she would force former military and top civilian officials from the Pentagon to wait four years before working for defense contractors. Her plan would also place restrictions on Pentagon officials holding stock in defense companies.

Esper won’t be the only Pentagon official with industry ties. Current Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy previously was a vice president at Lockheed Martin.

But others push back on the idea that there is an active revolving door between the defense industry and the Pentagon.

“I haven’t heard any industrial complex revolving door going on in this administration,” a lobbyist said.

And lobbyists and business executives joining the administration isn’t unique to the Pentagon. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was a lobbyist for agriculture and energy clients before joining the administration, and Environment Protect Agency Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Critics worry Trump ignoring plight of honeybees | EPA employee protests union contract while receiving award from Wheeler | Green groups team up to host presidential climate summit EPA employee protests union contract while receiving award from Admin. Wheeler Overnight Energy: Trump threatens veto on defense bill that targets 'forever chemicals' | Republicans form conservation caucus | Pressure mounts against EPA's new FOIA rule MORE is a former energy lobbyist. At the Federal Aviation Administration, Administrator Dan Elwell is a former lobbyist for American Airlines. Health Secretary Alex Azar is also a former drug company executive who managed pharma giant Eli Lilly’s lobbying efforts.

Mike Hettinger, founding principal at Hettinger Strategy Group, said it was natural that Esper would face questions about his time at Raytheon.

“If he is nominated, he’s likely to face questions about his time at Raytheon, in part because of past questions about other administration nominees,” Hettinger said. “I see no reason why those questions couldn’t be answered to the satisfaction of the decisionmakers on Capitol Hill.”

Hettinger said Esper would be aware of any ethical questions and recuse himself from matters where necessary. 

Another lobbyist and former Hill staffer also downplayed Esper’s background as a lobbyist.

“The lobbyist thing I don’t think matters. Shanahan came straight from Boeing, even though he wasn’t a lobbyist, I think that was a bigger deal,” the lobbyist said. “Wheeler got confirmed pretty easily, Bernhardt got confirmed pretty easily.”

The lobbyist said he did not think Esper would be under more scrutiny because of his lobbying background.

“We just don’t reject Defense secretaries. Absent of a Shanahan type of thing and his background, if he is nominated, he will be confirmed,” the source predicted.