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Trump’s Pentagon pick brings military experience, political savvy to new job

U.S. Army Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper takes part in a dignified transfer for fallen service member, Army Ranger Sgt. Leandro A.S. Jasso on Nov. 27, 2018 in Dover, Del. Esper will become the Secretary of Defense. (Mark Makela/Getty Images/TNS)

Mark Esper has been an Army officer, congressional staffer and corporate lobbyist. Now the Army secretary is the third person President Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Pentagon.

In two tweets Tuesday afternoon, Trump announced that acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was out after six months on the job and Esper was promoted to the post, at least temporarily.

A former Raytheon lobbyist who was confirmed to the Army position on an 89-6 vote in November 2017, Esper brings both military experience and political savvy to the post. But he also carries the baggage of his extensive experience working inside the Beltway, with one watchdog group immediately raising concerns about his defense industry ties.

In conversation, Esper comes across as informed, confident and comfortable with the challenges that come with sitting at an important desk. Shanahan, who worked hard to strip the “acting” from his title, seemed to struggle at times to communicate effectively, both with Congress and the media.

Esper graduated from West Point in 1986 and served as an infantry officer in the 1991 Gulf War with the 101st Airborne Division. He later worked as chief of staff at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has been particularly influential in Trump’s staffing decisions. He also served as legislative director for then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who went on to become defense secretary during the Obama administration.

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In an interview Tuesday, Hagel said Esper’s various professional experiences make him a good fit for the job, which is part politics, part management, part foreign policy, part governing and part national security.

“Mark is a very good person. He works hard, he’s smart, he’s dedicated,” Hagel said.

Hagel said he was not consulted before Trump named Esper acting defense secretary, and he doesn’t know whether the president intends to nominate Esper for the permanent position.

“I think it would be a very solid nomination,” Hagel said. “Certainly, I would strongly favor that nomination if that’s what President Trump would decide to do.”

Reaction from current senators was generally positive, but a bit reserved.

“More turmoil and turbulence at a department that really needs leadership,” said Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal, an Armed Services Committee member. “No telling how long (Esper) is going to be there. There’s no sign that he’s going to be permanent. He’s done a credible job as secretary of the Army, but the top spot is very different.”

“This is a particularly fraught time for there to be not only an acting but an acting-acting,” said Delaware Democrat Chris Coons, a vocal member of Senate Foreign Relations.

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But North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis, who also sits on Armed Services, sounded a more positive note.

“I’ve had a great working relationship with Mark Esper, so as acting I think it’s a good pick,” Tillis said.

Two other Armed Services members — Angus King, I-Maine, and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D. — said they wanted to see how the confirmation process played out, should Trump choose to formally nominate Esper.

“I don’t know him well. I’m not surprised by that being the interim choice,” Cramer said. “I think it’s fine, but now it remains to be seen if he gets the nod for the permanent position.”

Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he received a call from Trump just before the president tweeted his decision to tap Esper for the acting position.

“I was surprised,” he said. Esper has “gone through confirmation, he’s done well. There won’t be anything out there that I can think of that would create a problem for him.” Inhofe, however, acknowledged that Shanahan had also been through the confirmation process for the deputy defense secretary job.

Trump told Inhofe it would be best for all parties and for the country if Shanahan withdrew his name as the nominee, Inhofe said.

During the George W. Bush administration, Esper served as deputy assistant defense secretary for negotiations policy, focusing on arms control and nonproliferation.

Esper came back to the Pentagon to lead the Army, quickly creating the Army Futures Command, a new organization focused on getting new technologies to the field, a direct response to the Army’s two-decade struggle to develop and buy new weaponry.

He set six priorities for the service — long-range precision weapons, a new combat vehicle, a next-generation helicopter, a communications network, air and missile defense, and soldier lethality — aimed at preparing for possible conflicts with Russia and China.

“I’m confident that those are the right systems,” he told CQ Roll Call in an interview earlier this year. “If we get those six right, we’ll be in very, very good shape.”

Esper displayed a shrewd strategy in securing funding for those programs. Rather than simply asking Congress for billions of new dollars, Esper ran a “night court” to systematically analyze more than 500 Army equipment programs. Army officials identified a few that no longer made sense, and Esper used those savings to fund his priorities.

Normally, cutting an existing program angers at least a few lawmakers, upset that jobs and dollars could disappear from their district or state. But Esper’s approach and sales job produced plaudits rather than complaints.

During this month’s marathon markup of the annual policy bill by the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J., said lawmakers want to conduct a “deep, thoughtful review” of Esper’s conclusions, but that by “being deliberate, careful, and thorough with their budget priorities,” the Army had inspired a lot of confidence.

But his K Street experience drew reservations from at least one group.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington voiced concerns about Esper’s history in the defense industry, particularly as his former employer Raytheon is seeking government approval for a proposed merger with United Technology Corp.

“His ethics agreement — and his ability to follow it — will be something we will be watching closely,” the organization said in a prepared statement.

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(Patrick Kelley and Cameron Peters contributed to this report.)

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© 2019 CQ-Roll Call, Inc., All Rights Reserved

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