The Senate confirmed Mark Esper to become the next permanent secretary of defense July 23 by a landslide vote, ending months of uncertainty about the Pentagon’s leadership.
Esper, who previously served as Army secretary since 2017, was confirmed by a vote of 90-8 Tuesday afternoon. Eight Democrats voted against his confirmation, and two senators – Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) did not vote.
Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters Tuesday morning that Esper will be sworn in as defense secretary Tuesday evening. As of Defense Daily’s deadline Tuesday, he was scheduled to be sworn in at the White House at 5:30 p.m.
He will become the first permanent official in that position since former Secretary Jim Mattis was forced to resign early on Dec. 31, 2018. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan took over as acting defense secretary Jan. 1 until his own abrupt resignation from the Pentagon June 23 (Defense Daily, June 19).
Esper then served as acting defense secretary until his nomination was formally sent to the Senate July 15, at which point Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer took over the acting secretary role until Esper was confirmed Tuesday.
Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has been pushing to have Esper confirmed as soon as possible, and widely praised the awaited vote Tuesday.
“It’s not very often we have someone that is enthusiastically supported by Republicans, by Democrats, and he is obviously the right person,” Inhofe said, adding. “He has the trust of our president, the trust of our military, the trust of Congress and the country to keep our nation safe.”
The eight Democrats who voted against Esper’s confirmation included five presidential candidates: Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) Meanwhile, Oregon Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden also voted no, as did Warren’s fellow Democratic colleague from Massachusetts, Sen. Ed Markey.
Warren, a SASC member along with Gillibrand, grilled Esper on his past experience as a lobbyist for major defense contractor Raytheon [RTN] during his July 16 confirmation hearing, providing the main point of tension in an otherwise supportive hearing (Defense Daily, July 16).
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, defended her vote to confirm Esper in a Tuesday statement, saying, “I am greatly concerned about the lack of stable leadership at the Department of Defense and the message it sends to our adversaries.”
“I believe it is imperative that there be a steady hand at the Department to lead our men and women in uniform and address the many troubling threats to national security around the globe,” she continued, noting that she appreciated Esper’s leadership of the Army.
Esper retired from the Army in 2007 after spending 10 years on active duty and 11 years in the National Guard and Army, and subsequently worked for the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank and as a staff member on the Hill.
He served as legislative director and senior policy adviser to former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who later served as defense secretary from 2013 to 2015. Esper also was a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations and Senate Government Affairs committees, served as policy director for the House Armed Services Committee, and as national security adviser for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). He also has experience as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy at the Pentagon.
Esper’s industry support experience includes stints as the Aerospace Industries Association’s chief operating officer and executive vice president of defense and international affairs, and later as vice president for government relations at Raytheon. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and a doctorate in Public Policy from George Washington University.
Meanwhile, the White House sent a formal nomination for Undersecretary of Defense and Chief Comptroller David Norquist to become the next deputy secretary of defense to the Senate Tuesday morning. SASC has agreed to expedite his nomination process – similarly to Esper’s – and will hold a hearing on his nomination Wednesday morning.
Norquist has served as acting deputy secretary of defense since Jan. 1. Once his nomination was received by the Senate Tuesday, he has stepped back into his previous role as Pentagon comptroller, and Spencer is now performing the duties of the deputy secretary of defense, Hoffman, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.
Unlike Esper in his consideration for defense secretary, Norquist is not legally required to step down from his role as acting deputy secretary while the Senate considers his nomination, but is doing so in deference to Congress, Hoffman noted.