Business & Lobbying

Trump pick brings scrutiny to ‘revolving door’ between Pentagon, industry

Getty Images

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 Shanahan, 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.


“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 McCain (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 Hagel (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 McKeon (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.


“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 Warren (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 Wheeler 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.

Tags acting defense secretary Andrew Wheeler Buck McKeon Chuck Hagel Department of Defense Elizabeth Warren John McCain Patrick Shanahan Raytheon

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video