Overnight Defense: Esper sworn in as Pentagon chief | Confirmed in 90-8 vote | Takes helm as Trump juggles foreign policy challenges | Senators meet with woman accusing defense nominee of sexual assault

Overnight Defense: Esper sworn in as Pentagon chief | Confirmed in 90-8 vote | Takes helm as Trump juggles foreign policy challenges | Senators meet with woman accusing defense nominee of sexual assault
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THE TOPLINE: Mark Esper was sworn in as Defense secretary on Tuesday evening, officially ending the Pentagon's longest-ever period without a Senate-confirmed leader.

The swearing-in, conducted by Supreme Court Justice Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoSupreme Court postpones April arguments Supreme Court rules Citgo responsible for 2004 oil spill Supreme Court postpones oral arguments amid coronavirus pandemic MORE in the Oval OfficE. The swearing-in, conducted by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in the Oval Office, came hours after the Senate confirmed Esper in a 90-8 vote.

Praise from Trump: "That's a vote that we're not accustomed to," President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor NBA to contribute 1 million surgical masks to NY essential workers Private equity firm with ties to Kushner asks Trump administration to relax rules on loan program: report MORE said during the ceremony.

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"I am confident that he will be an outstanding secretary of defense," Trump added. "I have absolutely no doubt about it. He is outstanding in every way. We're honored to have you aboard."

 

The timing: The Senate's vote to confirm Esper to be Trump's next Pentagon chief, capped off a rollercoaster six months since former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisIs coronavirus the final Trump crisis? Pentagon seeks to reconsider parts of B cloud contract given to Microsoft over Amazon Democrats press FEC pick to recuse himself from Trump matters MORE's resignation. The confirmation of Esper as the 27th official head of the Pentagon makes him the first Senate-approved Defense secretary since late December.

Big challenges: The vote comes as the Trump administration juggles multiple foreign policy challenges, including growing tensions with Iran, talk of new sanctions against Turkey and lingering congressional pushback over the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi eyes end of April to bring a fourth coronavirus relief bill to the floor Progressive group knocks McConnell for talking judicial picks during coronavirus Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill MORE (R-Ky.) praised Esper ahead of the vote, noting that a second Senate-confirmed Defense secretary is "beyond urgent."

"The nominee is beyond qualified. His record of public service is beyond impressive. His commitment to serving our service members is beyond obvious and the need for a Senate-confirmed secretary of Defense is beyond urgent," he added.

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Months of waiting: The vote marks the end of a months-long effort to find a replacement for Mattis, who resigned amid deep military and foreign policy strategy disagreements with Trump.

Trump had been expected to nominate then-acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanBoeing pleads for bailout under weight of coronavirus, 737 fallout Esper's chief of staff to depart at end of January Defense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia MORE, who ultimately withdrew himself from consideration amid multiple reports describing past domestic violence incidents involving his family.

Instead, Trump quickly put forward Esper; senators have ushered him through his confirmation process at a breakneck speed.

The vote: The Senate voted 90-8, with the eight opposing votes all Democrats -- Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerEnlisting tech to fight coronavirus sparks surveillance fears Democrats urge administration to automatically issue coronavirus checks to more people Democrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus MORE (N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden struggles to stay in the spotlight Biden fights for attention in coronavirus news cycle Lawmakers already planning more coronavirus stimulus after T package MORE (N.Y.), Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisEnlisting tech to fight coronavirus sparks surveillance fears Biden says his administration could help grow 'bench' for Democrats Is Texas learning to love ObamaCare? MORE (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyOvernight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill Democratic senators want probe into change of national stockpile description Overnight Energy: Oil giants meet with Trump at White House | Interior extends tenure of controversial land management chief | Oil prices tick up on hopes of Russia-Saudi deal MORE (Mass.), Jeff MerkleyJeffrey (Jeff) Alan MerkleyOvernight Energy: Oil giants meet with Trump at White House | Interior extends tenure of controversial land management chief | Oil prices tick up on hopes of Russia-Saudi deal Oil giants meet at White House amid talk of buying strategic reserves Democrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus MORE (Ore.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats seize on Trump's firing of intelligence community watchdog Biden says his administration could help grow 'bench' for Democrats Overnight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill MORE (Mass.), and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus Democrats say more unemployment benefits needed in wake of record unemployment claims Democrats fear coronavirus impact on November turnout MORE (Ore.). Five of them, Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, and Warren, are running for the 2020 presidential Democratic nomination.

The Senate Armed Services Committee had approved his nomination by a voice vote on Thursday, waiving the panel's rule that there has to be seven days between a confirmation hearing and the committee vote.

Background: Esper's ascension comes amid a shakeup of top military and Pentagon officials. The Pentagon announced last week that its Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy David Trachtenberg, its No. 2 policy official, is retiring.

A number of leadership positions don't have permanent Senate-confirmed appointments including the deputy Defense secretary, Army secretary and Air Force secretary.

Esper was confirmed as Army secretary by the Senate 89-6 in the fall of 2017. A former infantry officer, Esper previously served as a top executive at the defense contractor Raytheon before joining the Trump administration.

His nomination appeared to be on a glide path after a largely noncontroversial confirmation hearing last week.

 

SENATE PANEL MEETS WITH HYTEN ACCUSER: The woman accusing the nominee to be the No. 2 general in the country of sexual assault testified privately Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, two Democratic senators confirmed.

Sens. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthOvernight Health Care: CDC recommends face coverings in public | Resistance to social distancing sparks new worries | Controversy over change of national stockpile definition | McConnell signals fourth coronavirus bill Democratic senators want probe into change of national stockpile description Democrats ask EPA, Interior to pause rulemaking amid coronavirus MORE (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who sit on the committee, said the panel met with Gen. John Hyten's accuser during its closed-door Tuesday morning business meeting.

"I found her very believable," Duckworth told reporters. "I do think it becomes a he-said-she-said kind of situation, but I have some questions after listening to her testimony where I'm going to try to follow up and seek some sort of clarification."

Blumenthal said the committee met with the woman for "several hours," adding that he will have the woman's account "very closely looked at" because "the survivor deserves respect and serious consideration."

Earlier in the day, committee Chairman Jim InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeGOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC Overnight Defense: Stimulus bill has .5B for Pentagon | Money would be blocked from border wall | Esper orders 60-day freeze for overseas troop movements Senate panel switches to 'paper hearings' amid coronavirus pandemic MORE (R-Okla.) declined to comment on the meeting, telling reporters only that "you know what we're discussing."

The next step: Senators had previously been briefed by defense officials on the accusations against Hyten, who President Trump has nominated to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Duckworth and Blumenthal said the committee is also scheduled to meet with Hyten himself later this week.

The committee has a business meeting scheduled for Thursday morning to "consider pending military nominations," according to a notice.

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What we know: The female officer told The Associated Press that Hyten subjected her to unwanted sexual advances by kissing, hugging and rubbing up against her in 2017 when she was one of his aides. She further alleged that when she rebuffed him, he tried to derail her military career.

An Air Force investigation cleared Hyten of the allegations, but some senators have questioned how the investigation was carried out.

The accusations have stalled Hyten's confirmation process as the Armed Services Committee debates about to proceed.

What we don't know: Duckworth said Tuesday's meeting with the woman left her with questions about "why Hyten has been treated differently than other high-ranking officers, or any officers for that matter, who have similar accusations against them."

She added that "there are quite a number of us on the Democratic side" who believe "there are many other officers who could do this job."

Time crunch: Senators are facing a time crunch in filling the vice chairman role as the current vice chairman, Gen. Paul Selva, is slated to retire at the end of July.

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The pending vacancy is one of several that have senators concerned about a leadership vacuum at the Pentagon.

 

GOP SENATORS TALK TURKEY SANCTIONS AT WHITE HOUSE: A group of 45 Republican senators traveled to the White House for a meeting with President Trump on potential Turkish sanctions.

The White House revealed little of the meeting as of Tuesday afternoon, and only released the topic of the gathering and the names of the senators that attended.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeGOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC Overnight Defense: Stimulus bill has .5B for Pentagon | Money would be blocked from border wall | Esper orders 60-day freeze for overseas troop movements Senate panel switches to 'paper hearings' amid coronavirus pandemic MORE did not attend the meeting, but all other Republican lawmakers on the committee were there, including Tom CottonThomas (Tom) Bryant CottonTrump's ambitious infrastructure vision faces Senate GOP roadblock  GOP lawmaker touts bill prohibiting purchases of drugs made in China Wisconsin Republican says US must not rely on China for critical supplies MORE (Ark.), Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerBottom Line Stimulus empowers Treasury to rescue airlines with billion in direct assistance White House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package MORE (Miss), Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerSenators balance coronavirus action with risks to health Coronavirus takes toll on Capitol Hill As we face coronavirus battle, we must ensure critical supplies of respirators for health care workers MORE (Neb.), Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstCampaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus Politics and the pandemic — Republicans are rightly worried Ernst calls for public presidential campaign funds to go to masks, protective equipment MORE (Iowa), Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsGOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus Five things being discussed for a new coronavirus relief bill Senate GOP expects vote on third coronavirus package next week MORE (S.D.), Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanGOP senators begin informal talks on new coronavirus stimulus GOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC Overnight Energy: Democratic lawmakers seek emissions reductions in airline bailout | House Dems warn Trump against oil industry bailout | GOP senators ask Saudis to stabilize oil market MORE (Alaska), Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisNorth Carolina Senate race emerges as 2020 bellwether The Hill's Campaign Report: North Carolina emerges as key battleground for Senate control Campaigns pivot toward health awareness as races sidelined by coronavirus MORE (N.C.), David Perdue (Ga.), Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden struggles to stay in the spotlight Democratic super PAC targets McSally over coronavirus response McSally calls on WHO director to step down MORE (Ariz.), Kevin CramerKevin John CramerInfrastructure bill gains new steam as coronavirus worsens GOP senators urge Saudi Arabia to leave OPEC GOP senator apologizes for tweet calling Pelosi 'retarded,' blames autocorrect MORE (N.D.), Rick Scott (Fla.), Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyHawley unveils initiative to rehire workers laid off during coronavirus crisis, bolster domestic production Lawmakers press IRS to get coronavirus checks to seniors Democrats eye additional relief checks for coronavirus MORE (Mo.), and Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTrump must cut our dependence on Chinese drugs — whatever it takes Senate passes House's coronavirus aid bill, sending it to Trump Nikki Haley expected to endorse Loeffler in Senate race MORE (Tenn.).

 

Why it matters: The United States last week officially booted Ankara from the F-35 fighter jet program over the NATO ally's purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system.

The sale puts into play congressionally mandated sanctions, which fall under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and are imposed when a U.S. partner buys Russian military equipment.

President Trump said Thursday that he has not yet made a decision on whether to impose the sanctions.

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger will speak off the record at the Navy League of the United States and the Shipbuilders Council of America at the annual Shipbuilding Caucus breakfast event at 8 a.m. in Rayburn House Office Building, room 2044.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson will speak on "A Review of the Nuclear Posture Review, National Security Strategy, and Nuclear Deterrence," at 8:30 a.m. at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C. 

Retired Adm. Scott Swift, the former commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, and other defense experts will speak at the Center for Strategic and International Studies' ninth annual South China Sea Conference at 9 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold the confirmation hearing of David Norquist to be deputy secretary of defense at 10 a.m. in Dirksen Senate office Building, room G50. 

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocratic senators call on domestic airlines to issue cash refunds for travelers Overnight Energy: Coronavirus package punts on environmental fights | Court sides with tribes in Dakota Access Pipeline case | Trump officials walk away from ethanol court fight Coronavirus package punts on environmental fights MORE (D-R.I.) will speak on "Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs" at 12 p.m. at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. 

Defense Undersecretary for Intelligence Fritz Barth will speak at an Institute of World Politics lecture on "Artificial Intelligence Initiatives: U.S. and Chinese Strategies," at 4 p.m. in Washington, D.C. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Iranian admiral: 'We observe all enemy ships' including US

-- The Hill: Pakistan PM: Without Trump, conflict in Afghanistan could have continued another 19 years

-- The Hill: Afghan president responds to Trump saying he could end war in a week

-- The Hill: South Korean jets fire warning shots at Russian military plane

-- The Hill: Opinion: NATO's disappearing navies invite trouble in the Baltic Sea

-- The Hill: Opinion: Solidarity between Trump and Khan could herald a new future for U.S.-Pakistan partnership

-- The Hill: Opinion: The US must restore diplomacy and leadership for a safer world

-- Military Times: Lawmakers, lawsuit want VA to reconsider delays for 'blue water' veterans claims

-- Reuters: Bulgaria president vetoes $1.26 billion deal for F-16 fighter jets