Mark Esper has received enough bipartisan Senate support to be confirmed as the next secretary of defense — the first to permanently serve in that role for seven months.
Esper was President Donald Trump’s second choice after the first, Patrick Shanahan, decided not to seek confirmation due to a sensitive family matter. That opened the door for Esper, previously the Army’s civilian chief and later acting defense secretary, to get the official job.
Esper’s background concerns some people. Although he served as an Army infantry member — giving him a good understanding of everyday soldiering — he later worked as a Raytheon lobbyist for seven years before joining the Pentagon in 2017. That’s potentially problematic as the defense secretary has immense sway over which weapons the Pentagon buys. He may have to recuse himself from any decision related to Raytheon, a major defense firm, vying for contracts.
What’s more, the Trump administration is in the middle of a massive diplomatic spat with Turkey over its decision to buy and use Russian-made missiles instead of Raytheon-made ones.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), a top Democratic candidate for president, grilled Esper on his Raytheon past during last week’s Senate Armed Services Committee nomination hearing last week — providing the only truly uncomfortable moment in an otherwise uneventful appearance. Warren wanted Esper to recuse himself from all Raytheon-related matters, but Esper said he didn’t need to after conferring with ethics officials.
None of that concerned the administration, it seemed, and there may be a few reasons why.
First, Esper was a former classmate of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s at West Point, class of 1986, and Pompeo and Esper reportedly have a friendly relationship. That gives the secretary a likely ally in deliberations on foreign policy against National Security Adviser John Bolton.
Second, Esper has long pushed for the US to take a hardline stance against China. “We may be a little bit late — we are late — coming to the recognition that we are in a strategic competition with China,” he told Reuters in April.
“The issue of China, competition with China, China’s capabilities, is not a new one to me,” said the former combat veteran, who served in the first Gulf War. “That is both the foundation and the shaping of my views on these various issues, because I’ve watched this evolution for 20 years now.”
That means Trump now has a like-minded person in the Pentagon when it comes to confronting China, although the president has not shown any appetite for a military fight with that country.
Finally, Esper has said he thinks the US has lost its military edge compared to Russia and China. “Today, Russia and China are aggressively developing formations and capabilities and weapons systems that deny us that long-held advantage,” he said in a speech at the Atlantic Council think tank last May. Esper may therefore advocate for a robust defense budget, which jibes with Trump’s inclination to make the US military as strong as possible.
The challenge for Esper — as it was for former Defense Secretary James Mattis — will be speaking truth to power (Trump) and advocating for the Pentagon despite the White House’s whims.
So although Esper has combat experience, his toughest battles could still be ahead of him.