Mark Esper will face the brightest spotlight of his career Tuesday as the Senate takes up his nomination to become defense secretary, but experts say the former Raytheon executive may be uniquely qualified to weather the storm as Democrats use his confirmation hearing as a forum to bash President Trump’s foreign and national security policies.
Mr. Esper, looking to finally fill the vacancy left when James N. Mattis stepped down as defense secretary in December, is expected to face questions over the White House’s most controversial moves, including the deployment of U.S. troops to the Mexican border and its handling of military tensions with Iran. More broadly, he is likely to be pressed on whether he is able to stand up to the president — as Mr. Mattis did at times — if the two men disagree on fundamental issues.
Mr. Esper is fully prepared for the showdown, analysts say, and will feel at home in a tense political back-and-forth with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Unlike Patrick M. Shanahan, a former Boeing official who abruptly withdrew from consideration to be defense secretary last month, Mr. Esper has spent years working in Washington and won’t be intimidated by the congressional arena.
“Nobody’s smoother,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a think tank focused on national security. “The difference between Shanahan and Esper is that Esper has a long track record of public service and Washington interactions before he was proposed for the Pentagon job.
“His resume makes it seem like he’s been planning to be secretary of defense since he was a teenager,” he said.
Indeed, Mr. Esper’s resume would seem to check all the boxes necessary to lead the Pentagon.
He served in the Army and saw combat in the Gulf War. Mr. Esper later served as national security adviser to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, and policy director for the House Armed Services Committee, along with stints at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the conservative Heritage Foundation and elsewhere across Washington.
In 2017, Mr. Trump nominated him to become secretary of the Army, a job he held until last month. In June, Mr. Esper became acting defense secretary.
He was required to resign from that role Monday. Federal law states that an official can’t serve as an acting secretary while undergoing confirmation for the permanent post.
After Mr. Esper’s resignation, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer took over as acting Pentagon chief, the fourth head of the Defense Department in just over six months. He is expected to serve for only a few weeks.
Although Democrats plan some tough questions for Mr. Esper, there is bipartisan support for a quick confirmation process to fill one of the most powerful Cabinet positions on a permanent basis. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said he hopes Mr. Esper can be confirmed before the Senate’s extended summer recess.
“While my time in this role is anticipated to be brief, I am fully prepared and committed to serve as acting secretary of defense, and I will provide continuity in the leadership of the department,” Mr. Spencer said in a statement. “Our allies and partners can rest assured that the Department of Defense remains ready to respond to meet our commitments around the globe in support of our common goals.”
Analysts and Capitol Hill sources expect Mr. Esper to have a relatively easy road to confirmation. His resume, they say, makes it virtually impossible for even the toughest Trump administration critics to argue that he is not qualified for the job.
But Mr. Esper will have to contend with his ties to the defense industry, which also challenged Mr. Shanahan at times. Having spent seven years as vice president for government relations at Raytheon, one of the nation’s top defense contractors, Mr. Esper is sure to field questions over his coziness with contractors, which earn billions of dollars in defense contracts every year.
Watchdog groups are eager to see how he handles the issue during his Senate testimony. Specifically, they want Mr. Esper to detail how he will head off any conflicts of interest involving Raytheon, including whether he would voluntarily extend the mandated two-year “cooling off” period to recuse himself from matters involving his former employer.
“One of the big questions is whether he recognizes the intent of ethics laws and cooling-off periods to create a system where the public can have confidence that decisions are based on what’s best for national security, not what might financially benefit his former employer,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight. “Shanahan modeled how to show this commitment by voluntarily extending his cooling-off period, showing that he understood our current weak ethics laws are a floor, not a ceiling, on what limits should be put in place.”
During his time at the Pentagon, Mr. Shanahan vowed to recuse himself from all matters involving Boeing, where he worked for nearly 30 years.
Some analysts say the two situations aren’t entirely comparable and that Mr. Esper doesn’t come with the same ethics concerns.
“For Esper, his time at Raytheon was just a way station between jobs,” Mr. Thompson said.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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