Trump’s pick for defense secretary faces Senate hearing

Trump's pick for defense secretary faces Senate hearing

WASHINGTON – Mark Esper, a West Point graduate and former defense industry lobbyist, was scheduled to face questions from lawmakers Tuesday at a confirmation hearing on his nomination to be secretary of defense.

With bipartisan support in the Senate, his bid to become the Pentagon chief is unlikely to stir much controversy. Esper was confirmed to his current post as Army secretary by a vote of 89-6 in 2017.

Still, he is sure to face sharp grilling from senators, given the tensions roiling the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula and the continuing shifts in the world order.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who is leading the hearing as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week that he believes we are living in a “threatened world, I believe the most threatened that we’ve ever been in before.”

Esper, 55, holds a masters from Harvard University, a doctorate from George Washington University, and he spent more than 20 years in the Army including 10 on active duty, before becoming a lobbyist, most recently for Raytheon.

During an appearance as acting secretary in Brussels last month, he said Russia and China are the United States’ chief competitors, and the Pentagon’s strategy is governed by that reality, according to a Defense department report. He said that strategy includes upgrading weapons systems, strengthening alliances and improving performance and accountability at the Pentagon. 

“The department’s mission remains clear: To deter conflict, and if necessary, fight and win on the battlefield,” Esper said. 

Here are some other key areas where he will likely face questions:

Lobbying

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a member of the committee, already fired off a letter to Esper raising concerns about his ties to the defense industry.

Esper sold his stock in Raytheon in 2018 and has recused himself from dealings at the Pentagon related to the company, where he was the top lobbyist from 2010 to 2017.

But he’s still entitled to deferred compensation starting in 2022, the Hill reported. And in a memo dated June 24, he said he may participate in Raytheon matters if an ethics official signs off and if the issue is “so important that it cannot be referred to another official.”

In addition, he “may be allowed to be present in meetings and receive information regarding Raytheon when necessary to remain informed about matters of critical importance to national security and Department of Defense programs and budget.”

Raytheon is the third-largest Pentagon contractor with $17.6 billion in contracts, Bloomberg reported.

Warren asked in her letter to Esper that he commit to continued recusal from all decisions involving Raytheon.

“I am troubled by your unwillingness to fully address your real and perceived conflicts of interest,” Warren wrote. “If confirmed, you must continue not to be involved with any matters that would affect Raytheon’s or your own financial interests.”

Iran

The United States nearly bombed Iran last month after Tehran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone. Trump pulled back a planned attack at the last minute.

But tensions remain high. Iran has started stockpiling and enriching uranium beyond limits set in the 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers. The United States has blamed Tehran for sabotaging oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and Britain recently seized an Iranian tanker bound for Syria in the Mediterranean Sea, a move that has angered Iran and led to a call for retaliation.

Turkey

Ankara on Friday began taking delivery of a Russian missile system in defiance of warnings from the United States and others.

U.S. officials have said the Russian S-400 system is not compatible with allied systems and could compromise security of U.S.-made F-35 fighter jets.

Key senators from both parties blasted Turkey’s acceptance of the S-400 and said it is a “troubling signal of strategic alignment with (President Vladimir) Putin’s Russia and a threat to the F-35 program.”

In a joint statement, Inhofe, Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the top Democrats on both committees, Sen. Jack Reed, R.I., and Robert Menendez, N.J., called on the Pentagon to terminate Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program.

“Turkey is an important NATO ally, and we hope that the strategic relationship between the United States and Turkey will overcome this setback,” they wrote. “But lasting improvement to our cooperation will not be possible as long as President (Recep) Erdogan remains fixated on deepening ties with Vladimir Putin at the expense of the economic prosperity of Turkey and the security of the NATO alliance.”

The administration has not announced what it plans to do in response to Turkey’s actions.

Esper told NATO counterparts in Brussels last month that his appointment as acting secretary was “not a change in mission, it is not a change in priorities and it is not a change in the United States commitment to the NATO alliance.”

Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard

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