Mark Esper has been an Army officer, congressional staffer and corporate lobbyist. Now the Army secretary is the third person President Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Pentagon, at least temporarily.
In two tweets Tuesday afternoon, Trump announced that acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was out after six months on the job — and was withdrawing from consideration for the permanent post to “devote more time to his family.” Esper, in turn, got promoted and a ringing endorsement from the commander in chief.
“I know Mark, and have no doubt he will do a fantastic job!” the president tweeted.
A former Raytheon lobbyist who was confirmed to the Army position on an 89-6 vote in November 2017, Esper brings both military experience and political savvy to the post.
But like other Trump appointees with lobbying backgrounds, he also carries the baggage of his extensive experience working inside the Beltway. One watchdog group immediately raised concerns about his defense industry ties.
Esper will take over the Pentagon at a particularly critical time for national security, as a military confrontation with Iran looms as a real possibility. He will also have to navigate the Hill as the defense authorization and appropriations bills move swiftly through both chambers in the coming weeks.
“The reality is that the timing of this isn’t very good. We are taking up NDAA this week and starting that process,” said North Dakota Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer, an Armed Services Committee member. “That’s our job, obviously, not the administration’s. But it is nice to have somebody at the helm to call on.”
In conversation, Esper comes across as informed, confident and comfortable with the challenges that come with sitting at an important desk. Shanahan, who worked hard to strip the “acting” from his title, seemed to struggle at times to communicate effectively, both with Congress and the press.
In a move reminiscent of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, known for his ability to navigate Congress, Esper has received little backlash from typically reluctant lawmakers about his plans to rid the Army of a few unneeded programs to invest in his priorities.
“While change will be hard for some, we can no longer afford to delay the Army’s modernization,” Esper told House appropriators in April. “We believe we are following the sound guidance conveyed to us by many of you. In this era of great power competition, we cannot risk falling behind.”
Esper graduated from West Point in 1986 and served as an infantry officer in the 1991 Gulf War with the 101st Airborne Division. He later worked as chief of staff at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has been influential in Trump’s staffing decisions. He was also a legislative director for former Sen. Chuck Hagel, who went on to become Defense secretary during the Obama administration.
In an interview Tuesday, the Nebraska Republican said Esper’s various professional experiences make him a good fit for the job, which is part politics, part management, part foreign policy, part governing and part national security.
“Mark is a very good person. He works hard, he’s smart, he’s dedicated,” Hagel said.
Hagel said he was not consulted before Trump named Esper acting Defense secretary, and he doesn’t know whether the president intends to nominate Esper for the permanent position.
“I think it would be a very solid nomination,” Hagel said. “Certainly, I would strongly favor that nomination if that’s what President Trump would decide to do.”
Reaction from current senators was generally positive, but a bit reserved.
“More turmoil and turbulence at a department that really needs leadership,” said Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, a Senate Armed Services member. “No telling how long [Esper] is going to be there. There’s no sign that he’s going to be permanent. He’s done a credible job as secretary of the Army, but the top spot is very different.”
“This is a particularly fraught time for there to be not only an acting but an acting-acting,” said Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, a vocal member of Senate Foreign Relations.
But North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis, who also sits on Armed Services, sounded a more positive note.
“I’ve had a great working relationship with Mark Esper, so as acting I think it’s a good pick,” he said.
Two other Armed Services members — Cramer and Maine independent Angus King — said they wanted to see how the confirmation process played out, should Trump choose to formally nominate Esper.
“I don’t know him well. I’m not surprised by that being the interim choice,” Cramer said. “I think it’s fine, but now it remains to be seen if he gets the nod for the permanent position.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe said he received a call from Trump just before the president tweeted his decision to tap Esper for the acting position.
“I was surprised,” the Oklahoma Republican said. Esper has “gone through confirmation, he’s done well. There won’t be anything out there that I can think of that would create a problem for him.”
Inhofe, however, acknowledged that Shanahan had also been through the confirmation process for the deputy Defense secretary job. Trump told Inhofe it would be best for all parties and for the country if Shanahan withdrew his name as the nominee, Inhofe said.
During the George W. Bush administration, Esper served as deputy assistant Defense secretary for negotiations policy, focusing on arms control and nonproliferation.
Esper came back to the Pentagon to lead the Army, quickly creating the Army Futures Command, a new organization focused on getting new technologies to the field, a direct response to the Army’s two-decade struggle to develop and buy new weaponry.
He set six priorities for the service — long-range precision weapons, a new combat vehicle, a next-generation helicopter, a communications network, air and missile defense, and soldier lethality — aimed at preparing for possible conflicts with Russia and China.
“I’m confident that those are the right systems,” he told CQ Roll Call in an interview earlier this year. “If we get those six right, we’ll be in very, very good shape.”
Esper displayed a shrewd strategy in securing funding for those programs. Rather than simply asking Congress for billions of new dollars, he ran a “night court” to systematically analyze more than 500 Army equipment programs. Army officials identified a few that no longer made sense, and Esper used those savings to fund his priorities.
Normally, cutting an existing program angers at least a few lawmakers, upset that jobs and dollars could disappear from their district or state. But Esper’s approach and sales job produced plaudits rather than complaints.
During this month’s marathon markup of the annual policy bill by the House Armed Services Committee, New Jersey Democrat Donald Norcross said lawmakers want to conduct a “deep, thoughtful review” of Esper’s conclusions, but that by “being deliberate, careful, and thorough with their budget priorities,” the Army had inspired a lot of confidence.
But Esper’s K Street experience drew reservations from at least one group.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington voiced concerns about his history in the defense industry, particularly as his former employer Raytheon is seeking government approval for a proposed merger with United Technology Corp.
“His ethics agreement — and his ability to follow it — will be something we will be watching closely,” the organization said in a prepared statement.
Patrick Kelley and Cameron Peters contributed to this report.