WASHINGTON — Mark Esper survived a mostly perfunctory Senate committee confirmation hearing Tuesday, setting in motion the next steps to have him confirmed as defense secretary.
Other than being pilloried by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) over his refusal to give a blanket promise to recuse himself on certain issues, Esper was praised for his background and for what members of the committee said were their hopes he would bring leadership and stability to the Pentagon.
According to the Defense News Service, Esper is the first nominee to be defense secretary who has served in all military components: active duty, National Guard and Army Reserve.
Committee members seemed to be happy with his clear answers to most questions.
For example, on the timely topic of Turkey receiving the Russian S-400 anti-missile system, Esper said it is “the wrong one, and it’s disappointing.”
He reiterated that Turkey’s acceptance of the S-400 means they will be removed from the F-35 fighter program and face possible economic sanctions from the United States.
“It is very disheartening to see how they have drifted over the past several years,” Esper said. He noted that Turkey was one of the first NATO nations, an organization formed to counter Russian aggression, and now Istanbul is siding with Russia.
Esper, 55, also stressed that he preferred diplomacy in dealing with Iran, not war, and he would not hesitate to make that case to President Donald Trump.
“I agree we do not want war with Iran,” he said. “We are not seeking war with Iran. We need to get back on the diplomatic channel.”
He said he would resign his position if asked or commanded to do any action that was “illegal, immoral or unethical.”
The Pentagon hopes the committee will vote on Esper’s nomination on Wednesday and, if approved, send it to the Senate for a vote on Thursday.
Esper served as acting defense secretary for three weeks. He stepped down from that position at 3:07 p.m. EDT Monday, when his nomination formally reached the Senate. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was then elevated to acting defense secretary, becoming the third person to serve in that role this year, after James Mattis resigned as defense secretary on Dec. 31, 2018.
After Mattis’ departure, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was immediately elevated to acting defense secretary and President Donald Trump said he would nominate him for the full job. But last month Shanahan withdrew from consideration and resigned his post as deputy following revelations of domestic incidents in his past.
Esper was sworn in as Army secretary on November 20, 2017, after working at defense contractor Raytheon as the vice president for government relations for seven years. The West Point graduate has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a doctorate in public policy from George Washington University.