Trump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing

Trump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing
© Greg Nash

Army Secretary Mark Esper appears to be on a glide path to confirmation as Pentagon chief after Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The Defense secretary nominee briefly tangled with 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter knocks Zuckerberg for invoking her father while defending Facebook Overnight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — House Dems advance drug pricing bill | Cases of vaping-related lung illnesses near 1,500 | Juul suspends sales of most e-cigarette flavors MORE (D-Mass.) over his previous job as a lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon. But the debate marked the only fireworks at an otherwise uncontentious hearing.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeSenate confirms Trump's Air Force secretary pick The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump declares 'case closed' as text messages raise new questions Top House Democrat: Trump did 'on camera' what Romney warned about MORE (R-Okla.) said after the hearing that he expects the panel to vote on Esper’s nomination as soon as Thursday. That would likely be followed by a procedural vote on the Senate floor as early as Monday evening, Inhofe added.

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Most senators are eager to confirm the West Point graduate to fill the Pentagon’s top civilian job on a permanent basis after going through a record-long period without a confirmed Defense secretary.

The post has been held by acting secretaries since the beginning of the year, after former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisMattis responds to Trump criticism: 'I guess I'm the Meryl Streep of generals' Trump turns Pelosi's 'meltdown' criticism around: 'She is a very sick person' War of words at the White House MORE resigned amid policy disputes with President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' MORE.

“Most of us were very discouraged by the resignation of Secretary Mattis, and what we’ve hoped for is a successor who could show the same level of candor and principle and a willingness to remain independent even in the most challenging circumstances,” committee member Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineLawmakers set to host fundraisers focused on Nats' World Series trip The Hill's 12:30 Report: Washington mourns loss of Elijah Cummings GOP cautions Graham against hauling Biden before Senate MORE (D-Va.) said Tuesday in his opening remarks. “I believe that Dr. Esper has those traits and would encourage all of my colleagues to support this nomination.”

Esper, who in 2017 was confirmed as Army secretary by the Senate in an 89-6 vote, scored points Tuesday by pledging to focus on filling Defense Department vacancies quickly.

“There is a staggering number of senior-level civilian vacancies throughout the department,” said ranking member Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedSenators fear Syria damage 'irreversible' after Esper, Milley briefing This week: Congress returns to chaotic Washington Fury over Trump Syria decision grows MORE (D-R.I.). “I’m concerned that the Defense Department is adrift in a way I’ve not seen in my whole time on Capitol Hill.”

Esper told senators that he met with White House officials on Monday and “went down the list of the 14 current slots that do not have a Senate-confirmed person and talked about each, and obviously I urged them to help us push folks through.”

After the hearing, Reed highlighted Esper’s commitment to fill jobs at the Pentagon as he spoke to reporters about the need for a “rapid” confirmation but without “taking any shortcuts” on vetting.

On touchy subjects, including comparisons to Mattis and standing up to Trump, Esper avoided any landmines that could derail his nomination.

Asked by Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersPoll shows Sen. Gary Peters with slim lead over GOP rival in Michigan From foster care to forever home Republican challenger to Gary Peters in Michigan raises over million MORE (D-Mich.) whether he more closely aligns with Trump or Mattis, Esper replied, “I don’t know where to pick between the two.”

“But I clearly share Mattis’s views, and I’ve expressed that publicly,” Esper added.

Mattis resigned in December over disagreements with Trump’s now-reversed decision for a full U.S. military withdrawal from Syria.

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In his resignation letter, Mattis laid out that he was leaving because his views did not “align” with Trump’s on the value of alliances such as NATO and the anti-ISIS coalition, in addition to standing firm against adversaries like Russia and China.

Asked if he would resign as Mattis did if he is asked to do something that contradicts his values, Esper said he would “absolutely” be willing to step down if he is asked to do something illegal or immoral.

“My time in the Army — I grew up with this view that if you’re asked to do anything illegal or immoral or unethical, then that would be the point at which you have to consider resignation,” Esper said.

On the Trump administration’s recent tensions with Iran, Esper assured lawmakers that “we do not want war with Iran.”

“We are not seeking war with Iran. We need to get back on the diplomatic channel,” he said.

Trump has said that he was within minutes of striking Iran last month in response to Tehran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone. Lawmakers now worry that the president will use a 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) to take military action against Iran without congressional approval.

Asked whether the 2001 AUMF would justify military action, Esper flatly said, “No.”

He added that the 2001 authorization “applies to terrorist groups and organizations, and that would not be the case here with regard to the country of Iran.”

Esper did argue, though, that Trump has power under Article II of the Constitution to protect U.S. troops and respond to an attack from Iran.

He pledged to keep politics out of the Department of Defense (DOD), another top concern senators have had during the Trump administration.

“It is very important to me to continue the long-held tradition that DOD be apolitical,” Esper said. “I want to be sure we are conducting ourselves in a professional and ethical manner at all times.”

Esper briefly sparred with Warren, who criticized the nominee for not committing to further distance himself from Raytheon and for declining to say he would not return to the defense industry for at least four years after leaving his government job.

“Let me get this straight. You’re still due to get a million-dollar payout from when you lobbied at Raytheon, you won’t commit to recuse yourself, you insist on being free to seek a waiver that would let you make decisions affecting Raytheon’s bottom line and your remaining financial interest, and you won’t rule out taking a trip right back through the revolving door on your way out of government service,” Warren said.

“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,” she added. “You can’t make those commitments to this committee, that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of Defense.”

Inhofe intervened in the exchange to allow Esper time to answer and later said Warren had exceeded her time.

“This is outrageous,” Warren exclaimed.

But Warren was alone in her harsh criticism, and several Republican senators leapt to Esper’s defense.

Inhofe told Esper the exchange “was unfair and you handled it beautifully.” Speaking to reporters later, Inhofe added that he found Warren “self-serving, arrogant and ... disrespectful.”

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said he was “very disappointed that Sen. Warren would demonize you after your decades of service simply because you served in the private sector.”

“I guess she just needed a moment for her presidential campaign,” Scott added.

Warren’s opposition to Esper could slow down the Senate’s plan to fast-track his nomination, but it likely won’t derail it.