Trump urged to quickly fill Pentagon post amid Iran tensions

 
Trump signaled late Friday he intends to nominate Army Secretary Mark Esper to permanently fill the role. But Esper, who is set to take over as acting Defense head on Monday, will still need his nomination formally submitted to the Senate.
 
Lawmakers argue that growing tensions with Iran and looming funding negotiations — where lawmakers will need to agree to raise the caps on defense spending — require Trump to move quickly to get a Senate-confirmed official in place at the Pentagon.
 
"It’s bad. It’s bad. ... When you have the word 'acting' after your name, you’re not it. You’re perceived by other countries as being not the person in charge," said Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenate panel advances Pentagon chief, Joint Chiefs chairman nominees Trump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing Trump says US will not sell Turkey F-35s after Russian missile defense system purchase MORE (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
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While Trump has a tendency to rely on officials serving in top positions — including Cabinet posts — in an acting capacity, he has come under rising pressure to not use the same strategy for the Defense Department.
 
Shanahan, who took over after former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisWatchdog: Former Pentagon spokeswoman misused staff for personal errands Senate panel advances Pentagon chief, Joint Chiefs chairman nominees The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment MORE left the administration late last year, became the longest-serving acting defense secretary in history, frustrating members of Congress who demanded more permanency.
 
Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDemocrats should rise above and unify against Trump's tweets US-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Media cried wolf: Calling every Republican a racist lost its bite MORE (R-S.C.), a Trump ally and Foreign Relations Committee member, said amid fallout over Shanahan's abrupt withdrawal this week that “an acting secretary of Defense is not what we need.”
 
"We need a permanent secretary of Defense to help guide the department through budget negotiations and conflict," he said, adding, "I would encourage the president to find somebody quickly to ascend to the Senate."
 
Asked about the shake-up at the Pentagon amid escalating concerns about a military conflict with Iran, with Trump on Friday confirming that the administration had been considering strikes, Graham replied, “Yeah, that’s why we need somebody permanent.”
 
The White House is known for letting nominations languish for weeks before formally submitting them, a dynamic that has sometimes frustrated GOP senators. Shanahan's nomination, for example, was announced in early May, but when he withdrew this week, his paperwork still hadn't been sent to Capitol Hill. 
 
Shanahan’s decision to withdraw from consideration caught GOP senators off guard, with several suggesting they were learning only through news reports the details of past domestic violence incidents involving his family.
 
Pushing forward with the nomination would have set the stage for a brutal confirmation fight, keeping the reports about Shanahan's family in the spotlight with no guarantee he could have recovered and ultimately been confirmed.

Now, lawmakers are ready to turn the page.

“The Pentagon and its many evolving missions require capable and steady leadership. I hope the Senate will act expeditiously when we receive the nomination of this highly qualified national security leader," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch Funding a strong defense of our nation's democratic process can't wait The Hill's Morning Report: Trump walks back from 'send her back' chants MORE (R-Ky.) said late Friday after the White House's announcement about Esper.

Several GOP senators indicated ahead of Trump's announcement Friday night that they liked Esper and wanted to confirm him. Esper joined the administration in 2017 after being confirmed to lead the Army in a 89-6 vote.

Sen. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerTrump puts hopes for Fed revolution on unconventional candidate Trump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand Acosta on shaky ground as GOP support wavers MORE (R-N.D.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Friday he was "thankful" Trump was "moving quickly to fill this important post." Still, Trump didn't indicate on Friday when he would send Esper's paperwork to the Senate.

Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine major general and former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director, argued that Esper can serve as acting defense secretary only until July 30 unless Trump sends up a "formal nomination" of someone else.

“Since the 210 day clock applies to the vacancy, not the individual, Sec. Esper's clock expires on July 30, 2019—from the original January 1, 2019 date that Sec. Mattis stepped down,” Punaro wrote in a memo shared with The Hill.

Inhofe appeared confident after speaking with Trump on Thursday that he would nominate Esper. But asked about a timeline for getting a new nominee confirmed, he warned the process would take time. 

"[The nominee] would have to fill out paperwork before it could be done, then it goes to the FBI, then it comes to the nominating process, so it’s going to take a little while,” he said.

The unraveling of Shanahan’s expected nomination was the latest in a series of setbacks for Trump’s picks so far this year. Stephen MooreStephen MooreTrump puts hopes for Fed revolution on unconventional candidate Acosta on shaky ground as GOP support wavers Americans are trillion better off thanks to rising stocks under Trump MORE and Hermain Cain, who were both floated by Trump as picks for the Federal Reserve, withdrew their names from consideration after reports surfaced that raised questions about their ability to be confirmed.

Trump’s tendency to publicly name nominees before they’ve been fully vetted has become a perennial headache for lawmakers, who have urged the administration to hold off on floating an individual until after they’ve cleared background checks.

“We need to do a better job. If they had the information, they should share it,” Graham said when asked if the allegations against Shanahan should have come up sooner in the FBI’s background check.

Democrats have seized on the kerfuffle over Shanahan as the latest sign of “chaos” in the Trump administration.

“To have no secretary of Defense at this time is appalling. And it shows the chaos in this administration. They have so many empty positions rotating, revolving doors in the most sensitive of security positions,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDem senator describes 'overcrowded quarters,' 'harsh odor' at border facilities Top Democrats demand security assessment of Trump properties Lawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens MORE (D-N.Y.) said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said he wants a permanent Defense secretary “to avoid continuing turnover and turmoil.”

“And then I will talk to whoever is the permanent secretary about why the vetting process failed so deeply in this case,” he said.

Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedPentagon's No. 2 policy official to retire Senate panel advances Pentagon chief, Joint Chiefs chairman nominees Democrats warm to idea of studying reparations MORE (R.I.), the top Democrat on the panel, added it was “critical” to get a Senate-confirmed secretary but urged the administration to avoid prioritizing speed.

“I think we don't want to cut any corners,” he added, “because that's what seemed to happen last time."

Rebecca Kheel contributed