As the ink dries on Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s withdrawal to be considered as a permanent secretary and resignation as deputy defense secretary, House and Senate armed services committee members called June 18 for President Trump to nominate an official candidate soon to mitigate uncertainty posed by an “acting” leader.
Trump announced via Twitter Tuesday that Shanahan had withdrawn his nomination for defense secretary, and that he had selected Army Secretary Mark Esper to become the next acting defense secretary (Defense Daily, June 18).
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a Tuesday statement that Esper “has a long history of dedicated service to this nation, and he has shown excellent judgment in his current position.”
However, “For the sake of our national security, we need a confirmed Secretary of Defense—not just an acting—and I hope we can get to that point as quickly as possible,” Inhofe added.
He told reporters on Capitol Hill that Trump had notified him personally before sending the tweet Tuesday, and that the recent reports of an FBI report into Shanahan’s family past had led both the president and Shanahan to agree that a withdrawal would be best.
“What he shared with me was they both thought, ‘It’s going to get worse before it gets better, let’s just bail out,’” Inhofe said.
He noted that he has visited the field with Esper and “watched his style of working with the troops,”
“He does really a very good job,” Inhofe said. Should Trump officially nominate Esper for defense secretary, the chairman would support him, he added.
House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) similarly lauded Esper’s record “as a soldier, public servant and senior executive” and expressed confidence in Trump’s pick for an acting leader in a Tuesday statement, but emphasized that the permanent defense secretary position should be filled “in a matter of weeks, not months.”
“However well-qualified Secretary Esper may be, it is critical that the President nominate, and that the Senate confirm, a permanent Secretary of Defense as quickly as possible,” Thornberry said, adding, “The uncertainty surrounding this vacant office encourages our enemies and unsettles our allies.”
Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), who chairs the HASC Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, repeated Thornberry’s call for the White House to permanently nominate a defense secretary in a tweet Tuesday afternoon. He noted that the U.S. military has been without an official secretary since December 2018. He added that he has gotten to know Esper since taking up the subcommittee gavel and looks forward to “working together in a new capacity.”
Other HASC members including Reps. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.) expressed via Twitter their support for Esper as acting defense secretary while calling for a permanent nomination as soon as possible.
SASC Member Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told reporters that his relationship thus far with Esper has been “strong.” SASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chair Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) told reporters she had a good working relationship with Esper, and also had one with Shanahan. She declined to say whether she would support Esper’s potential nomination, adding she would “wait and see” if he is selected.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a former SASC member who sits on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, said it was “probably a good decision” for Shanahan to step aside, adding that the “issues that he is confronting would probably make confirmation tough.”
Graham called Esper an “excellent choice, confirmable and … a good leader,” but added that “there are a lot of good choices for the president.”
Analyst Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners said in a Tuesday email to investors that Esper’s selection as acting secretary makes him “the next logical SecDef nominee” who may in his new role be “auditioning for the role.”
Callan deemed this a neutral development for the U.S. defense sector, and said he expects Esper would be confirmed by the Senate should he receive the nomination.
While Esper comes from a similar industrial background as Shanahan, having served as Raytheon’s vice president of government relations for over six years, “it’s very difficult to discern any bias favoring Raytheon while Esper has been Secretary of the Army,” he said. Analysts also don’t expect pushback should Esper serve while the Defense Department analyzes the recently announced merger between Raytheon and United Technologies Corp. [UTX] aerospace business, he said.
Callan noted that any new nominee will undergo an extensive background check, and that the Senate is expected to break for recess in August. Should Esper be nominated, the process could move more quickly as he has already been Senate-confirmed. However, considering the Senate’s scheduled, “a new nominee may have to wait until Sept.-Oct. for confirmation at the earliest and that may hold if it’s Esper.”