Defense

Five things to watch for at Defense nominee's confirmation hearing

Defense secretary nominee Mark Esper will face senators Tuesday in a confirmation hearing that comes as lawmakers are eager to fill a leadership vacuum at the Pentagon that has languished for months.

Esper has won praise from both sides of the aisle as a known quantity who worked well with Congress in his previous role as Army secretary, a job for which he was confirmed in an 89-6 vote.

But he's still expected to face tough questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee on everything from his history as a lobbyist to the Trump administration's strategy for Iran.

Here are five things to watch for on Tuesday.

 

How big of a concern is his lobbying?

Before taking on the role of Army secretary in 2017, Esper spent the better part of a decade as a lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon.

He's one of several defense industry officials who have been assigned to top jobs at the Pentagon.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in a statement when Esper's nomination was announced said that he's concerned about "the increasingly corporate culture at the Department of Defense and the growing consolidation of the defense industry."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has proposed imposing a lifetime ban on former lawmakers and Cabinet members from lobbying, met with Esper last week and followed up with a July 11 letter urging him to extend his commitment to recuse himself from matters involving Raytheon through the duration of his tenure at the Pentagon. Esper signed the two-year agreement in 2017.

The presidential candidate in a letter released on Monday said Esper indicated he would not do this.

"I am troubled by your unwillingness to fully address your real and perceived conflicts of interest, and write to ask that you reconsider," she wrote.

 

Will he be asked to stand up to Trump?

The Pentagon's last confirmed Defense secretary, James Mattis, was highly respected in Congress for the perception he stood up to President Trump.

Critics debate how earned that reputation was, as Trump eventually got his way on several issues, including withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and banning most transgender people from military service.

But the image of Mattis standing up to Trump and resigning in protest over policy differences related to Syria still lingers in the minds of lawmakers.

Questions about whether Esper is too much of a "yes man" have not been as prominent as they were for Trump's first choice to replace Mattis, Patrick Shanahan.

Still, the Armed Services Committee has been asking top nominees about their willingness to push back on Trump. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) last week asked Gen. Mark Milley, Trump's nominee to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if he was willing to tell the president he was wrong. Milley replied that he wouldn't be "intimidated into making stupid decisions."

 

What's the plan for Iran?

Tensions with Iran are at a boil after attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region and two breaches by Tehran of limits imposed in the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.

In June, Trump backed away from a military strike on the country.

Lawmakers have questioned the administration's end game, with Democrats in particular unsatisfied that the administration has an answer.

With Esper's hearing, senators will have a chance to grill a top official on the administration's strategy in public. Lawmakers are also likely to want to know Esper's own recommendations for handling the situation, such as whether to deploy more troops to the region.

 

What will he do to combat military sexual assault?

Eliminating sexual assault in the military is a goal that continues to evade Pentagon leadership despite millions of dollars poured into programs to combat the issue.

The military has dealt with numerous high-profile cases in the last several years. Most recently, it was revealed last week that the general nominated to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was accused by a female officer of sexual assault. An Air Force investigation cleared Gen. John Hyten of the allegation, but the revelation is still expected to complicate his confirmation process.

Esper could also be asked to answer for the investigation into Hyten. Committee member and presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) wrote Esper a letter last week saying she was "very troubled" at the handling of the investigation.

"I am disappointed to learn that your office, under then-Acting Secretary Shanahan, improperly assigned disposition authority to an officer who possesses neither the necessary distance from the accused nor the seniority to properly carry out disposition responsibilities," she wrote.

More broadly, the Pentagon's latest report on sexual assault released in May showed the number of cases of unwanted sexual contact - a term that covers acts from groping to rape - jumped to 20,500 in 2018 from 14,900 in 2016.

Esper told The Hill in May there is no room in the military for sexual assault or harassment.

In addition to Gillibrand, committee member Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who revealed in March that she was raped by a superior officer while in the Air Force and has since made combating military sexual assault a focus, could press Esper on the issue.

 

Can he maintain a balancing act on the border?

Esper has walked a fine line on the administration's controversial decision to deploy thousands of active-duty soldiers to the southern border.

Esper appeared to back the president while placating Congress. He told The Hill in May he had not seen a degradation in troop readiness since the deployments, a concern raised by lawmakers in both parties.

"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 these are opportunities to improve readiness."

The deployments, which began in October and have cost the Pentagon more than $400 million as of last month, are expected to continue beyond September with no end date in sight.

The issue was brought back into the public eye last week when the Department of Homeland Security asked the Pentagon for 1,000 additional Texas National Guard troops to help bolster the ranks of Customs and Border Protection agents in the state. The Pentagon has not yet approved the request.

Lawmakers are likely to grill Esper, who in January traveled with Trump to the border, on any negative impacts the deployments are having on force readiness, whether he would authorize additional troops to the border and under what circumstances, and whether he believes there is a national security crisis at the border.

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