Esper on path for quick confirmation despite Raytheon ties

The former lobbyist stressed Tuesday that his undivided loyalties are to serving the country and the military

Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., left, shakes hands with Secretary of Defense nominee Mark Esper before the start of Esper’s confirmation hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Mark Esper, President Donald Trump’s pick to be the next Defense secretary, defended his work as a lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon during his confirmation hearing Tuesday, stressing that his undivided loyalties are to serving the country and the military.

During an otherwise uncontentious hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a 2020 Democratic presidential contender, sparred with Esper on his ties to the Massachusetts-based defense giant and implored the nominee to recuse himself from any decisions affecting the firm, which he declined to do.

[Trump’s pick to lead the Pentagon brings military experience and political savvy to his new job]

But his history as a lobbyist appears to be only a hiccup in his path to confirmation. Senators on both sides of the aisle have stressed the importance of filling a key cabinet spot that has been open for nearly eight months and appear poised to promote the Army secretary to the Pentagon’s top job within days.

“We could actually get it done this week,” Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe, 0f Oklahoma, said of Esper’s confirmation. “We can definitely do it by Tuesday.”

Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the panel’s top Democrat, emphasized the importance of vetting the nominee but praised Esper’s work as Army secretary and said his experience should serve him well as Defense secretary.

Esper, a West Point graduate and former infantry officer who has served as Army secretary since 2017, is poised to become the Pentagon’s first confirmed chief since James Mattis resigned in January over policy disagreements with the president.

For much of Esper’s confirmation hearing, lawmakers focused on areas where he largely agrees with Mattis, who was widely popular on Capitol Hill, and the administration: the National Defense Strategy’s focus on Russia and China, the need for a $750 billion defense budget in fiscal 2020, and finding ways to deescalate tensions with Iran.

On the issue of his former employer, Esper said he would comply with his ethics agreement and not commit to a blanket recusal — an answer Warren found unsatisfactory. Warren noted that his ethics agreement allows Esper to receive a waiver to deal with issues that could directly affect Raytheon’s bottom line if the matter is “so important that it cannot be referred to another official.”

[Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan gives up post, withdraws name from nomination]

Raytheon, which is seeking government approval for a proposed merger with United Technologies Corp., is headquartered in Waltham, Mass.

Warren said Esper’s response, combined with at least $1 million in deferred payment from Raytheon and his refusal to commit to waiting at least four years after leaving office to return to the defense industry make him unfit to serve as Defense secretary.

“This smacks of corruption, plain and simple,” Warren said. “The American people deserve to know that you are making decisions in our country’s best security interests, not in your own financial interests. You can’t make those commitments to this committee, and that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of Defense.”

Esper shot back, arguing he has lived an “ethical life” and is committed to the nation’s security.

“I went to war for this country, I served overseas for this country, I’ve stepped down from jobs that paid me more than I was [making] anywhere else. And each time it was to serve the public good and to serve the young men and women of our armed services,” Esper argued. “I think [your] presumption is that anyone who comes from the business or the corporate world is corrupt.”

Sen. Rick Scott later apologized to Esper for Warren’s line of questioning.

“You’re a highly qualified candidate, and I’m very disappointed that Sen. Warren would demonize you after your decades of service simply because you have served in the private sector,” the Florida Republican said. “I guess she just needed a moment for her presidential campaign.”

Throughout the hearing, Esper staked out positions that put him in close alignment with Trump. He expressed support for the creation of a Space Force, one of the president’s pet projects, and he also called for NATO allies to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, another issue that Trump has raised repeatedly.

Sen. Gary Peters brought up Mattis’ emphasis on the value of alliances and the international order, something that put him at odds with the administration.

“Would you be a secretary of Defense with views more aligned with Secretary Mattis or more aligned with President Trump?” the Michigan Democrat asked.

Esper didn’t choose between the two leaders, and instead emphasized his agreement with Mattis’ National Defense Strategy, which makes good relationships with allies a top priority.

“Good alliances are made of strong, capable partners,” Esper said. “A collective security relies on everybody doing their fair share.”

Patrick Kelley contributed to this report.

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