It’s been seven months since a Senate-confirmed secretary of defense has presided over the Pentagon. This isn’t likely to be the case for much longer, as the Republican-controlled Senate is expected to confirm Mark Esper to the position soon, possibly by the end of the week. President Trump’s Cabinet is already rife with corruption, stocked full of former lobbyists and other private industry power players who don’t seem to mind leveraging their government positions to enrich themselves personally. Esper should fit right in.
An Army veteran and former Bush administration official, Esper was confirmed as Trump’s secretary of the Army in 2017. He took over as acting defense secretary last month following the unexpected resignation of Patrick Shanahan, whom Trump was poised to nominate for the position permanently. The president officially conferred the nomination to Esper on Monday. The following day, Esper testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where another entry on his resume was pulled into the spotlight: the seven years he spent as the top lobbyist for Raytheon, the defense contractor that does billions of dollars of business with the government every year.
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As detailed in Rolling Stone’s investigation into the influence of Trump’s leadership council of business executives, Raytheon hasn’t had much of a problem working its tentacles into the Trump administration. Esper sat on that council while still with Raytheon, and in July 2017 was announced as the president’s nominee to take over as secretary of the Army. “It’s the best time that we’ve ever seen for the defense industry,” Raytheon CEO Thomas Kennedy said a year later
Particularly concerned with Esper’s glaring conflict of interest was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). The presidential candidate began her questioning by asking Esper if would agree to recuse himself from participating in government business involving Raytheon while serving as defense secretary, similar to how Shanahan agreed to recuse himself from participating in doing business with Boeing, his former employer. Esper wasn’t interested. “On the advice of my ethics folks at the Pentagon, the career professionals: no, their recommendation is not to,” he said.
Warren then pointed out that when Esper left Raytheon he agreed to receive a robust deferred compensation payout after 2022. The law prohibits Esper from taking any action that would affect Raytheon’s “ability or willingness” hand over the money. But Esper recently wrote in a memo that he can obtain a waiver to participate in matters that “directly and predictably” affect Raytheon’s finances. Warren asked Esper if he would commit to abstain from seeking such a waiver. Again, he said no.
Lastly, Warren asked Esper if he would commit to waiting at least four years before taking a job with Raytheon or another defense contractor after his service in the government concludes. In May, Warren introduced legislation that would make such a quick transition illegal for former Defense Department officials.
Esper said he would not commit to waiting four years before returning to the private sector.
ESPER: "I think this is a good debate –"
WARREN: "I'm not trying to have a debate." pic.twitter.com/iu1Chu17ie
— CSPAN (@cspan) July 16, 2019
“The American people deserve to know that you’re making decisions in our country’s best security interests, not in your own financial interests,” Warren concluded. “You cannot make those commitments to this committee, that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense.”
Esper then touted his time at West Point and his years of public service as proof that he’s committed to serving the public good. Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-OK) tried to move on, but Warren wasn’t having it. “He is not willing to make a commitment that he will not engage in conflicts of interest for the company for which he was a lobbyist,” she said. “This is outrageous.”