During his confirmation hearing, the SecDef nominee was asked about Trump, China, and Russia — and not Afghanistan, ISIS, or al-Qaeda.
U.S. senators asked Army Secretary Mark Esper about many threats and worries during his Tuesday morning confirmation hearing. Perhaps the most common concern was President Trump himself.
The least mentioned topic: the actual wars and combat missions that American troops are fighting.
In the first 90 minutes of Esper’s hearing, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee from both parties asked many questions about Trump and the global security issues most directly associated with him: how he has thrown into doubt the United States’ commitment to its allies; challenged Iran with military force instead of diplomacy; deployed Army troops to the Mexico border; unilaterally withdrawn from the INF Treaty, Iran deal, and Syria; declined to rebuff or prepare for Russia’s election attacks; and politicized the military.
To be sure, China, Russia, Iran, and cybersecurity featured heavily in the senators’ lines of questioning, eventually. But often they raised those topics by asking how the Defense Department would respond to Trump policy actions. In short, the members asked in one way or another, would a Defense Secretary Esper stand up to the president? Esper came prepared, reassuring members several times that he would give his clear and unfettered advice to the president, just as he has while leading the Army. He even was asked, more than once, whether he would resign if he was positioned against his values or principles.
“Absolutely,” Esper said.
Those are not typical questions for a defense secretary’s confirmation hearing, but this is not a typical administration. Esper is the second of three men who have served as Trump’s acting defense secretary since December, when Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest over Trump’s America First talk and his sudden decision to withdraw from Syria. The office had been temporarily occupied by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan until last month when he also resigned and withdrew from consideration over scandal allegations related to his divorce. Esper quickly was named acting defense secretary, but when Trump formally nominated him to the post this week, Esper was required by law to vacate the office pending his full Senate confirmation. On Monday, he handed the defense secretary’s office keys to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.
Esper’s confirmation is likely but not guaranteed. Liberals have complained that for the second time in a row Trump has chosen a defense industry executive: Esper was a Raytheon lobbyist; Shanahan, a Boeing vice president. The hearing’s only fiery moment came when presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., aggressively challenged Esper to recuse himself because of his Raytheon background. Warren grew agitated. She demanded a “yes or no” and repeatedly cut off Esper’s attempts to give a couched answer; committee chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma ultimately banged his gavel and ordered her to let Esper respond. “No, Senator, I won't because I'm going to continue to abide by the rules and regulations and I'm going to continue to consult closely with my ethics personnel to ensure that we stay in the ethical midfield," Esper replied.
Warren appeared exasperated that the nominee would not give the pledges she sought, including to not work for any defense contractor for four years after serving as defense secretary, not to seek waivers for Raytheon-related decisions, all while he is still owed $1 million in deferred salary from the company.
“Secretary Esper, the American people deserve to know that you're making decisions in our countries best security interests, 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," she said.
Esper rebutted emotionally that he's served his country in uniform and in private life for three decades without ethical lapse.
"I think the presumption is for some reason anybody comes from business or corporate world is corrupt," he said.
When Inhofe again cut off Warren for going over her allotted time, she muttered, "This is outrageous."
On the campaign trail, Warren has made attacking the defense industry a staple of her national security message. In November, she claimed defense contractors had a “stranglehold” on defense policy and alleged the Pentagon was “captured” by the so-called “Big Five” companies. On Monday, no senators followed Warren up that hill. Fellow Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Conn., asked Esper about recusal and appeared satisfied at Esper’s answer that he would follow all required ethics rules. Later, a few Republican members scolded Warren.
Mostly, however, the focus was on how Esper would execute or buffer Trump’s policies. One of the first questions, from ranking Democrat Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, was whether he would support NATO. Esper offered "my personal commitment to NATO,” and assured the Senate that “our Article V commitments are ironclad,” to defend any NATO member state that is attacked. Reed asked if NATO defense ministers at their June meeting raised “the issue of the apparent discordance and diminishment of the relationships between our allies,” a leading topic in transatlantic discourse. Esper said, “Actually, I don't recall that coming up. We discussed a range of issues whether it involved operation our operations in Afghanistan, how we're strengthening the alliance. But that particular point did not come up.”
On Trump sending troops to aid with southern border security, Esper said, “It's just one of those many things we do,” like assisting states and other agencies with wildfires and floods,” ...it's one of those things we provide to other parts of the government, to the American people." He was not pressed further.
On fears of Trump starting a war with Iran, Esper said the U.S. would continue only “passive patrols" in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf region, but would meet with Iran "anytime, anywhere, without precondition”...to get back on the diplomatic path." Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he recently studied a map of military assets in Hormuz and argued that there are so many from the U.S. and Iran that he's worried about a military miscalculation leading to conflict.
On Russian election hacking, Esper said, "We're more and more confident” of security measures in place for 2020, as evidenced by the successful 2018 midterm elections. “This is something that we must stay on top of. The integrity of our elections, the criticality of our democracy is something that cannot be influenced or threatened" he said.
Esper was even asked whether military personnel should be staying at Trump properties abroad, as CNN reported in April. "Yes sir, I will certainly look into the issue" with department lawyers, he replied. "DOD should remain apolitical."
Esper also said that the Pentagon’s senior staffing shortage would be a top priority. "If confirmed, I need to staff up the top tier of the Pentagon, soonest." He revealed that before handing over his temporary office to now-Acting Defense Secretary Richard Spencer, on Monday, the two men sat with the White House personnel office and "we went down the list of the 14 current slots" of vacant Senate-confirmed Pentagon positions.
On the soon-to-be defunct INF Treaty, members asked how the U.S. should respond when restrictions on intermediate-range nuclear missiles expire next month, following Trump’s decision to scrap the treaty. Esper first said the U.S. needed to bolster missile defenses in Europe. Currently there is no missile defense weapon to stop high-speed, low-flying Russian cruise missiles like the SSC-8. "We need to make sure we develop the capability to respond," he continued, by developing U.S. intermediate-range missiles should the need arise to counter Russia or China, “god forbid.”
Among the forgotten or rarely mentioned issues: Afghanistan, Syria, Turkey, and Somalia. There were no questions about the Afghanistan War, which enters its 19th year this autumn. On Friday, the 12th U.S. service member of the year was killed in action there. There was one passing mention of Syria. Sen. Mazie Hirono, of Hawaii, asked in the context of whether Esper would be willing to oppose the president’s decision, as did Mattis.
Democratic Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan asked Esper if he agreed with Mattis’s resignation in defense of the international order against Trump’s views. “I'm fully committed to that,” he replied. “I realize the importance of it. The international rules based order in the wake of World War II is the order that has ensured prosperity and security now for 75 years. And I'm fully committed to that.” He declined to choose between Trump and Mattis, saying “clearly I share Secretary Mattis' views and I've expressed that publicly.”
The senators seemed mostly uninterested Esper’s thoughts on the Middle East beyond Iran. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., mentioned the region but only to say, "I worry another faraway war" against a weaker smaller nation "would take our focus off China."
It took the senators nearly two hours to get to Turkey, Washington’s NATO ally that last week continued its drift away from the West by accepting Russia’s S-400 air defense system. Esper called Turkey’s decision “a mistake.”
Unless Warren decides to place a hold on Esper’s nomination over his Raytheon background, the senator should shortly win overwhelming approval from the full Senate, which has less than one week of working days left before its scheduled August recess. It’s unlikely Esper — or any of the Trump administration’s Pentagon leaders — will face much tougher oversight from the Senate panel while it is under Inhofe’s control.
Before the chairman rose from his seat to hand over the gavel to a colleague, Inhofe apologized to Esper for his Democratic colleague Warren’s combative questioning, “for what you had to be confronted with. It was unfair and you handed it beautifully. Thank you."