Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Sen. Warren Spars with Defense Secretary Nominee Over His Lobbyist Work

The Democratic presidential candidate said that Mark Esper, who has declined to recuse himself from Raytheon-related decisions, should not lead the Pentagon.

The Senate should reject President Trump’s defense secretary nominee because of his history of lobbying for defense contractor Raytheon, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Tuesday.

Warren, who is running for her party’s presidential nomination, said Mark Esper should be denied the job because he refused to pledge to recuse himself from Raytheon-related decisions once his mandatory two-year recusal expires in November.

During a fiery exchange at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on Tuesday morning, Esper said his work at America’s third-largest defense firm, far from being disqualifying, was in fact valuable experience that uniquely qualifies him to be defense secretary. 

“I think the presumption is that, for some reason, anybody comes from the business or the corporate world is corrupt,” Esper said.

Warren fired back: “He is not willing to make a commitment that he will not engage in conflicts of interest for the company for which he was a lobbyist. This is outrageous.”

The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to approve Esper’s nomination. But Warren could place a hold on the nomination, delaying that vote indefinitely.

Esper spent six and a half years as Raytheon’s vice president of government relations — essentially, the company’s top lobbyist — before becoming Army secretary on Nov. 20, 2017. Ethics laws prohibit him from weighing in on Pentagon decisions involving Raytheon for two years after joining the government.

Earlier this year, Warren proposed legislation that would prohibit senior defense officials from working for large defense contractors until they were out of government for four years.

During Tuesday’s exchange with Warren, Esper refused to recuse himself from Pentagon matters involving Raytheon. 

“On the advice of my ethics folks at the Pentagon…no. Their recommendation is not to,” Esper said. 

As Army secretary, Esper said he “never got into the business … of picking programs.” Instead, he handled “broad policy matters, strategy, things like that.”

Esper is due more than $1 million in deferred compensation from his time working for Raytheon.

“Let me get this straight,” Warren said to him. “You’re still due to get at least a $1 million payout from when you lobbied for Raytheon. You won’t commit to recuse yourself from Raytheon’s decision. You insist on being free to seek a waiver that would let you make decisions affecting Raytheon’s bottom line and your remaining financial interests, and you won’t rule out taking a trip right back though the revolving door on your way out of government service or even just delaying that trip for four years after you leave government.

“The American people deserve to know that you’re making decisions in our country’s best security interest, not in your own financial interests. You can’t make those commitments to this committee, that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense.”

Esper, a West Point graduate, cited his combined 21 years of uniformed service as an active-duty, National Guard, and Reserve soldier, service that included a deployment during the 1991 Iraq War.

“I’ve lived an ethical life,” Esper said. “I’m going to continue to live by those ethics, those principles whether it involves Raytheon or any other company for that matter. It’s my commitment to the nation’s security. It’s my commitment to the men and women in uniform that drives me, not anything else.”

Esper noted – without mentioning the name — that Bill Lynn, who served more than two and a half years as deputy defense secretary during President Obama’s first term, had worked as Raytheon’s top lobbyist before taking a senior position in government.

“He was a good man, an ethical man,” Esper said of Lynn.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who spent more than six months this year as acting defense secretary, recused himself from dealing with all matters related to Boeing, his former employer, for the duration of his tenure in government after ethics questions were raised earlier this year.

“I can’t explain why [Shanahan] made that commitment,” Esper said. “He was fulfilling a different role than I am. He has a different professional background.”