WASHINGTON (TNS) — President Donald Trump sent Mark Esper’s nomination to lead the Pentagon to the Senate on Monday, moving to fill a key gap on his national security team as the U.S. juggles foreign policy crises from Iran to Venezuela.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer will fill in as acting secretary of defense for Esper, who’s barred by law from serving simultaneously as the acting Pentagon chief and the nominee for the permanent job. Although Spencer is expected to fill the top post only for a short time, he’s the fourth Pentagon chief to serve under Trump since his inauguration in 2017.
“Secretary Spencer has the full authority and responsibility of the secretary of defense,” Jonathan Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement. “The senior team supporting the Office of the Secretary remains in place to ensure institutional continuity.”
Esper, a 55-year-old former Raytheon Co. lobbyist who has served as Army secretary since 2017, will have his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
The shakeup comes after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stepped down in December over disagreements with Trump’s Syria policy and his commitment to U.S. alliances. Mattis’s deputy, Patrick Shanahan, became acting secretary but withdrew from contention for the permanent post last month after allegations of domestic violence in his family emerged.
That turmoil prompted the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to say in a joint statement last week that “we need Senate-confirmed leadership at the Pentagon, and quickly.” Republican Chairman Jim Inhofe told reporters that a vote in the full Senate to confirm Esper could come before the chamber’s August break.
Still, the circumstances around Shanahan’s abrupt departure mean there may be hard questions about whether sufficient vetting has been done on Esper. The allegations that derailed Shanahan’s expected nomination for the top job weren’t raised during his 2017 confirmation to be Mattis’s deputy.
In addition, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a member of the Armed Service panel and a Democratic presidential contender, said in a letter to Esper that he should go beyond ethics law requirements and his pledge to avoid involvement in most decisions on Raytheon contracts. “If confirmed as defense secretary, your potential conflicts would raise significant questions about whether the Department of Defense’s contracting decisions would favor Raytheon,” she said.