Trump's pick for Pentagon chief wins allies on Capitol Hill

Trump's pick for Pentagon chief wins allies on Capitol Hill

Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper started his new job as Pentagon chief this past week with a leg up on his predecessor, namely connections on both Capitol Hill and in the administration.

Esper, named by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTed Cruz knocks New York Times for 'stunning' correction on Kavanaugh report US service member killed in Afghanistan Pro-Trump website edited British reality star's picture to show him wearing Trump hat MORE as his pick to permanently hold the top defense post, has quietly served as Army Secretary for the past two years. Since November 2017, the 55-year-old has focused on shoring up the service and making inroads with Congress, with a manner that has been described as charismatic and detail oriented.

“He doesn’t want to make enemies unnecessarily and is aware of that,” said Rick Berger, a defense expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

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Berger, who has closely watched Esper’s interaction with Congress over the past two years, said he has seen “numerous times where he goes out of his way to avoid outright conflict with lawmakers, which is not something a lot of government officials are good at in the executive branch.”

That strategy has paid off. Lauded by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle as a solid choice to lead the Pentagon, Esper is viewed by many senators as “confirmable.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Esper works well with troops and “does a really good job.”

Inhofe’s Democratic counterpart on the House side, Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithIran talks unlikely despite window of opportunity GOP lawmakers call for provisions barring DOD funds for border wall to be dropped Warren's pledge to avoid first nuclear strike sparks intense pushback MORE (Wash.), said he is “encouraged” by the administration going with Esper.

“I have known Esper for years, both as a staff member on the Hill and in private industry, and believe the Department would benefit from his leadership,” Smith said in a statement following news that Esper would take over as acting secretary at the Pentagon.

The proof is also in the numbers. Esper was confirmed as Army secretary by the Senate 89-6 in 2017. 

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“In watching him testify...he’s very charismatic. He knows details, clearly prepares very well, understands how to communicate with Congress,” Berger said.

The same could not be said for Esper’s predecessor, Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanDefense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary MORE, who frustrated lawmakers at hearings, vexed NATO allies and had few strong supporters in the White House.

Shanahan recently withdrew his bid for the top Pentagon job following reports of domestic violence involving his family.

“I think the concern about Shanahan was that he would not stand up to Trump, that he was too much of Trump’s instrument,” said Mark Cancian, a former defense official and senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Cancian said Esper’s style hewed closer to that of former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico Trump needs a national security adviser who 'speaks softly' US could deploy 150 troops to Syria: report MORE, who left in December over disagreements on the administration’s desire to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. 

“Mattis did quite a masterful job of not contradicting his boss but not really agreeing with him either,” he said. 

Esper, who traveled to Brussels earlier this week for a meeting of NATO member defense ministers, has already gained the praise of European allies, who are often wary of Trump due to repeated calls for their countries to increase defense spending.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that the new acting Pentagon chief had “made a very good impression.”

“I know that your background from the military, from Pentagon, from Congress, from industry will serve you well in your new position. But will also be of great value for NATO and therefore I really look forward to working with you,” Stoltenberg told Esper.

One former official said Esper is “much more in touch with the politics of defense than Shanahan ever was.”

“Shanahan came out of industry – was very accomplished in industry – but I don’t get the feeling he ever really mastered the politics and he had a lot of ideas of changes he wanted to make but wasn’t really able to make them happen,” the official said. “Esper will have a much better sense of that.”

Esper already has friends in high places. At West Point he was classmates with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Hill's 12:30 Report: NY Times story sparks new firestorm over Kavanaugh Gabbard warns Trump: Acting like 'Saudi Arabia's b---- is not "America First"' Trump ramps up rhetoric on Iran MORE and David Urban, the political operative who worked on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

He is also close with Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Trump’s nominee to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

When appearing together at public and at events, Esper and Milley are often genial, trading good-natured barbs regarding their Ivy League alma mater -- Esper received a master’s degree from Harvard while Milley earned his bachelor’s at Princeton.

Esper, a former congressional aide and later a Raytheon lobbyist, has gained favor with Trump in recent months, backing the president’s deployment of thousands of active-duty soldiers to the southern border and traveling with him to Texas to view the operations. 

Esper told The Hill last month that he has not seen a degradation in troop readiness since the deployments, a concern raised by lawmakers in both parties. The deployments, which have cost the Pentagon more than $400 million so far, began in October and are expected to continue beyond September. 

“In many cases the soldiers are doing what they would do in a theater of war,” he told The Hill in an interview. “In some cases theses are opportunities to improve readiness.”

He added that even if there was a blow to troop preparedness due to the deployment, “it’s so few troops out of an Army of 1 million that it would have a negligible impact on it."

Esper has offered similar responses in testifying before lawmakers, many of whom fear that taking time and resources from the military to shore up border security would have negative impacts on force readiness.

He has shown adroitness in addressing the border wall issue “in a way that really didn’t piss off lawmakers, even though he wasn’t saying what they wanted to hear,” Berger said. “It showed an ability to walk the line between what the White House believes and what Congress believes.”

On another hot button issue -- the Pentagon’s barring of transgender individuals from serving, directed by Trump in July 2017 -- Esper has offered diplomatic comments.

“The so-called transgender policy is really a policy on the medical condition on gender dysphoria,” he told The Hill. “We have folks that try to enter the Army with any number of medical conditions, this is just another one we have to deal with.”

He added: “There’s not a ban on transgender soldiers. I’ve met with transgender soldiers, I’ve been impressed by the ones I’ve met. The issue is really medical readiness, deployability. We’re a standards-based organization, that’s kind of how we view it.”

Esper’s resume has also earned him points from would be supporters. 

After 10 years in the active duty Army and 11 in the National Guard and Army Reserve – a time period that included serving in the Gulf War with the 101st Airborne Division – Esper retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2007. 

He also has congressional experience, having worked as a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, House Armed Services Committee and then-Sen. Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelWhite House aide moves to lobbying firm Overnight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces Five takeaways from Pentagon chief's first major trip MORE (R-Neb.), who went on to become Defense Secretary. 

Esper left Capitol Hill briefly to work at the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration, but he returned to Congress as director for national security affairs under then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) from 2004 to 2006.

He later spent around seven years as a lobbyist for Raytheon before becoming Army secretary. 

Concerns about his lobbying background have also been voiced, including from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“The Trump admin has outsourced leadership of the Pentagon to the defense industry,” Warren tweeted this month when Esper was named acting secretary.

Cancian predicted that while Esper is “going to get roughed up a little in the hearings” over his lobbying work, it’s unlikely to derail his nomination.

“I think Esper will be able to have a complex, nuanced policy position that doesn’t rub the president the wrong way,” Berger said. 

At the same time, he said, “the Defense secretary is an impossible position in this administration.”