WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has a unique version of the old game of musical chairs. In its version when the music halts, instead of a chair getting removed, an individual seems to depart.
And no one seems to quite know how to slow the tune.
Since James Mattis departed as defense secretary on Dec. 31, 2018, the shell game of personnel being moved at senior Pentagon positions has only accelerated.
One of the rules seems to be the domino factor, a result of the filling top slots to compensate for Mattis’s departures.
Then there are the scheduled departures of top military commanders, always timed to expire in mid-presidential terms. Some nominations have been made and some confirmations ensued — but not all.
Throw in normal resignations and the slowness of the Trump administration of sending paperwork to Capitol Hill, and the music plays on and loud.
Among the slots open at the Pentagon: Defense Secretary, Deputy Defense Secretary, and Air Force Secretary. Then there are the jobs that need doing when people are shifted to do the duties of the positions that are full vacant.
Today, Mark Esper is in his first day as acting defense secretary, arriving at 7:24 a.m. and mumbling a few good mornings and hello. He technically remains as Army Secretary, with most — most —of his duties being handled by the undersecretary of the Army, Ryan McCarthy. McCarthy did it once before, from Aug. 1, 2017, until Nov. 16, 2017.
The number two slot of Deputy Secretary of Defense – that was Patrick Shanahan’s old job – is being temporarily filled by the military’s Comptroller David Norquist, the number three civilian rank in the Pentagon.
However, he is not called “acting Deputy Defense Secretary” but “Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary of Defense.” That gives him leeway to perform the duties longer but not entitled to do as much of the job if he was named “acting.”
Confused? So are Pentagon officials trying to sort it all out.
First is the 210-day rule. Under that regulation, certain individuals can only serve as ‘acting’ for 210 days until there is a formal nomination (and then the clock stops ticking). But because Shanahan was never nominated the clock on Esper started ticking on January 1, when Mattis departed. That would mean Esper could only serve in the acting role until July 30.
Another wrinkle. If Esper is nominated for the job, he cannot serve as acting defense secretary. He will have to stop being acting defense secretary until the Senate votes on his confirmation. Further complicating things: whoever becomes the next acting defense secretary will have limited command and decision power, all at a time of rising Iranian tension and conflicts on almost every continent.
Trump said he will nominate Esper for defense secretary as well as Norquist for Deputy Defense Secretary. Norquist’s number three job at the Pentagon is being handled by Lisa Hershman, as the Acting Chief Management Officer, who has been nominated but has not had her paperwork sent to the Senate.
Here is how her situation is explained by one Pentagon spokesperson to TMN:
“Ms. Hershman is serving as the Acting Chief Management Officer under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998. When a person is serving in an Acting capacity under this Act, the initial length of time an official may act in a PAS position is 210 days from the date that the position became vacant. There may be up to three 210-day periods in which someone can serve in an Acting capacity, depending on the facts of a particular situation. In the case of the CMO, the first 210-day period started on December 1, 2018, when the position of the Chief Management Officer (CMO) became vacant upon the resignation of the Honorable John H. Gibson. Lisa Hershman began to serve as the Acting CMO on that date. She will continue to serve as the Acting CMO under the first 210-day period until June 29, 2019, if the position of CMO continues to be vacant. If the President submits a nomination to the Senate for the CMO position, then she may continue to serve as the Acting CMO, as long as a nomination is pending before the Senate, with one exception. Since Ms. Hershman has not served as the First Assistant to the CMO for at least 90 of the 365 days preceding December 1, 2018, she would not be able to continue to serve as Acting CMO if she is nominated for the CMO position.”
One senior Pentagon official, speaking to reporters Friday evening, said the key difference of being nominated and confirmed to a position – as compared to be the “acting” officials — is dealing with counterparts overseas. “Confirmed by the Senate means confirmed by the American people, and that is an important distinction,” the official said.