Warren spars with Trump's top Defense nominee over ethics

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Tuesday slammed President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE's nominee to be the next Pentagon chief over ethics concerns related to his earlier employment at a top defense firm.

Warren said Army Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperTrump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan Japan's Hormuz dilemma 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 MORE should not be confirmed as Defense secretary unless he takes additional steps to further distance himself from his previous employer, Raytheon.

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“Secretary Esper, the American people deserve to know that you’re making decisions in our country’s best security interest, not in your own financial interest,” Warren said during Esper's confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “You can’t make those commitments to this committee, that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of Defense.”

Esper who recently had to step aside as acting Defense secretary to complete the nomination process, was Raytheon’s vice president for government relations from 2010 to 2017, a role that Warren said raises red flags about potential conflicts of interest since the company has defense contracts worth billions of dollars.

Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate, raised similar concerns last week in a letter to Esper when she urged him to extend his commitment to recuse himself from matters involving Raytheon through the duration of his tenure at the Pentagon. Esper in 2017 signed a two-year agreement saying he will not be involved in matters related to Raytheon, but that agreement ends in November.

Esper insisted Tuesday that Pentagon ethics advisers recommended he not extend the recusal.

“I’ve lived an ethical life. I'm going to continue to live by those ethics, those principles, whether it involves Raytheon or any other company for that matter,” he said.

It would be difficult for Esper to stay out of all Raytheon-related decisions, as the firm holds numerous Pentagon contracts. A full recusal could prevent him from reaching out to the firm if issues arise with a particular contract or system.

The exchange between Warren and Esper quickly grew heated, with Warren questioning him on at least $1 million in deferred payments from Raytheon which he is set to receive after 2022.

Warren — who in May introduced legislation that would impose a lifetime ban on former lawmakers and Cabinet members from lobbying — asked Esper if he would commit to forgoing employment with a defense contractor, or payments of any kind from a defense firm, for at least four years after his government service.

“No senator, I will not,” Esper replied.

“I went to war for this country, I served overseas for this country, I’ve stepped down from jobs that have paid me well more than what I was working anywhere else, and each time it was to serve the public good and to serve the young men and women of our armed services,” he said. “So no, I disagree. I think the presumption is, for some reason, anybody who comes from the business or the corporate world is corrupt.”

Warren continued to question Esper until Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeDemocrats, environmentalists blast Trump rollback of endangered species protections Bottom Line Overnight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador MORE (R-Okla.) ended the exchange.

“This is outrageous,” Warren replied.

 

 

Following the sparring, GOP committee members came to Esper's defense.

“I’m very disappointed that Sen. Warren would demonize you after your decades of service simply because you served in the private sector," said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.). "I guess she just needed a moment for her presidential campaign.”

Inhofe told Esper that the exchange “was unfair and you handled it beautifully.”

The debate is unlikely to derail Esper’s nomination, as lawmakers are keen to see the role filled on a permanent basis. The post has been held by acting secretaries since the beginning of the year, after former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOnly Donald Trump has a policy for Afghanistan New Pentagon report blames Trump troop withdrawal for ISIS surge in Iraq and Syria Mattis returns to board of General Dynamics MORE left at the end of December.