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Defense secretary focused on filling Pentagon vacancies

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford hold a media briefing at the Pentagon August 28, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)

Newly installed Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper wants to waste no time assembling his team at the Pentagon.

Five candidates will have confirmation hearings in the coming weeks, and another eight are being vetted by the White House, Esper told reporters Wednesday during a rare on-camera briefing with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr.

“We are making steady progress with Senate confirmations,” said Esper, the former Army secretary who was confirmed to the top Pentagon post last month.

Aside from Esper, the first confirmed defense secretary in nearly eight months, the Senate moved quickly to confirm several key Pentagon positions — including David Norquist as deputy defense secretary, Gen. Mark Milley as the next Joint Chiefs chairman after Dunford retires next month, and Adm. John Gilday as the Navy’s top officer — before departing for its five-week summer recess.

But several senior positions remain unfilled, including Joint Chiefs vice chairman, which has been vacant since Gen. Paul Selva retired at the end of July. Gen. John Hyten’s nomination to the post has been dogged by accusations of inappropriate sexual contact with a subordinate while he was in charge of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the nation’s nuclear weapons.

After hearing closed-door testimony from both Hyten and his accuser, Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 20-7 to approve Hyten’s nomination, but the full Senate did not vote on confirmation before departing for recess.

Esper did not go into detail about which nominees might have hearings soon, but a few, such as Lisa Hershman to be the Pentagon’s chief management officer, Dana Deasey to be chief information officer, and Ryan McCarthy to be Army secretary, seem likely possibilities.

The Trump administration has formally submitted nominations for Hershman and Deasey, who are pending before Senate Armed Services. McCarthy, the Army undersecretary, has been serving as acting Army secretary since Esper’s confirmation last month.

More than a dozen top Pentagon positions are either vacant or filled by someone in an acting capacity.

In response to questions about the politicization of the military, including uniformed troops wearing red Make America Great Again hats, Esper pledged to keep politics out of the military.

“My commitment is to keep this department apolitical,” Esper said. “I believe the best way to do that is for the chairman and I to behave in an apolitical way.”

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed published Wednesday, former Defense Secretary James Mattis said domestic political divisions pose a bigger threat to American democracy than foreign adversaries.

“We are divided into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain,” Mattis wrote.

While acknowledging that a small number of incidents involving the expression of a political preference had occurred, Dunford praised the professionalism of the armed forces.

“With very few exceptions, they have conducted themselves in a manner very consistent with our ethos and with our values,” he said. “It has been a very politically turbulent period of time, and yet almost 80% of the American people still have trust in the United States military as an institution.”


© 2019 CQ-Roll Call

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