- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Mark T. Esper appeared to take a big step closer to becoming President Trump’s next secretary of defense at a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing Tuesday in which he fielded questions on Iran, emerging threats from China and Russia, and his own past as a top executive for defense contractor Raytheon.

In a hearing that featured few sharp exchanges, Mr. Esper acknowledged that Turkey’s decision to purchase a Russian-made missile defense system was putting a strain on ties with Ankara, just an hour before President Trump confirmed to reporters at the White House that the U.S. would not sell new American F-35 fighter jets to Ankara because of the deal with Moscow.

“Their decision on the S-400 was the wrong one and it’s disappointing,” Mr. Esper told the committee.

Mr. Esper, who spent nearly seven years as an executive for Raytheon, appears to be on the fast track to be the first permanent head of the Pentagon since James Mattis resigned in December.

The record delay in confirming a permanent defense secretary has sparked impatience among lawmakers who are eager to confirm a nominee at the Pentagon after seven months of “acting” leaders since Mr. Mattis’ abrupt departure.

Mr. Esper, who is well connected inside the defense community, has also been well received by senators on both sides of the aisle. He was introduced Tuesday by Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine.

“Being introduced by the Democrats, that’s saying quite a bit,” committee Chairman James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, told The Washington Times.

“I thought he was straight out of central casting and it couldn’t possibly have gone any better,” added Sen. Roger Wicker, Mississippi Republican.

Mr. Esper, 55, served in the Army and saw combat in the Gulf War. He has also worked as a staffer on Capitol Hill, including a stint as policy director for the House Armed Services Committee.

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 after Mr. Trump’s first choice, Patrick M. Shanahan, withdrew citing family reasons.

It was Mr. Esper’s time at Raytheon that ignited the most heated exchange of Tuesday’s hearing, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who is also running for the Democratic presidential nomination, raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest.

She pressed Mr. Esper to recuse himself from discussions that involve his former employer. Mr. Esper refused and told the Massachusetts Democrat the “ethics folks at the Pentagon, the career professionals” were not recommending such a step.

Ms. Warren fired back.

“This is outrageous,” she said. “[If] you cannot make those commitments to this committee, that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense.”

But several Republicans on the panel came to Mr. Esper’s defense. “I guess she just needed a moment for her presidential campaign,” said Sen. Rick Scott, Florida Republican. Mr. Inhofe later dismissed Ms. Warren’s comments were “self serving, arrogant and disrespectful.”

In his opening remarks, Mr. Esper told the committee the department’s “central challenge” is the need to balance military readiness with modernization of the forces.

He declared that the U.S. is not seeking war with Iran and said the Pentagon was still looking to the diplomatic track to ease tensions.

The military’s goal is to “deter war, and this can only be done with a strong, modern, and ready military that has overmatch in all domains,” he said.

Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said the goal is to confirm Mr. Esper “as rapidly as possible,” before the upcoming August congressional recess. Mr. Inhofe said he hopes to seal the deal even sooner.

The committee plans to take up Mr. Esper’s nomination Thursday and hold a final vote early next week. He said he plans to file for unanimous consent on the Senate floor, but an objection by Ms. Warren could force a full Senate vote.

“If there is a way that she can obstruct, I think she would,” Mr. Inhofe said.

Even so, Mr. Esper is expected to be easily confirmed by the Senate in a matter of days.

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