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 InhofeOvernight Energy: Controversial Trump adviser reportedly returning to EPA | Delta aims to be first carbon neutral airline | Dem senator gives EPA D-minus on 'forever chemicals' Architect of controversial EPA policies to return as chief of staff: report Democratic senators press Interior official over proposed changes to migratory bird protections 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 MattisFed chief issues stark warning to Congress on deficits Why US democracy support matters Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts four Chinese military officers over Equifax hack | Amazon seeks Trump deposition in 'war cloud' lawsuit | Inside Trump's budget | Republican proposes FTC overhaul 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 GrahamUS defense chief says Taliban deal 'looks very promising' but not without risk Lawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban Graham requests interviews with DOJ, FBI officials as part of probe into Russia investigation 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 McConnellTrump declares war on hardworking Americans with new budget request The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Health Care: Nevada union won't endorse before caucuses after 'Medicare for All' scrap | McConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills | CDC confirms 15th US coronavirus case 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 Fed nominee stirs controversy ahead of hearing Senators, bruised by impeachment, hunt for deals Plan to probe Bidens sparks GOP divisions 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 administration weighing tax incentive for US households to invest in stock market On The Money: Trump adviser presses House to make Bezos testify | Kudlow says tax-cut proposal coming this fall | NY Fed says Boeing woes could hurt GDP | Delta aims to be first carbon neutral airline The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in 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 SchumerBarr to testify before House Judiciary panel Graham won't call Barr to testify over Roger Stone sentencing recommendation Roger Stone witness alleges Trump targeted prosecutors in 'vile smear job' 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 ReedLawmakers wary as US on cusp of initial deal with Taliban Pavlich: The Senate defends its integrity Five Senate Democrats make impeachment case in Spanish 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