Pentagon Lays Out Road Ahead for Leadership Nominations

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper speaks to reporters on a government aircraft en route to Brussels, Belgium, June 25, 2019. DOD photo by Lisa Ferdinando.

The Pentagon on July 9 laid out its succession plan, a game of military musical chairs dictating who will hold top leadership positions once Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper is officially nominated to take over the Defense Department.

Esper, who cannot serve in the top civilian role in an acting capacity while awaiting confirmation, will step down and resume his regular job as Army secretary during the confirmation process, a DOD spokesman said July 9. When Esper returns to the Army, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer will take over as acting defense secretary, according to a Pentagon statement. He will be the Pentagon’s third acting secretary this year.

Esper follows Patrick Shanahan, who rose from deputy defense secretary to be the DOD’s acting civilian head when former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis abruptly left his post in December 2018. Shanahan withdrew his name from the Senate confirmation process last month amid news reports about turmoil in his personal life. Three days later, President Donald Trump announced his intent to nominate Esper to serve in the role permanently, though the nomination is not yet official.

It’s still unclear who will take over as acting deputy defense secretary when David Norquist, who holds that post now, is formally nominated to the job. The OSD spokesman said there currently no timeline for making that decision.

Spencer and Esper’s swap atop the department will trigger another chain reaction: Acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy will return to his regular role as Army under secretary, and Navy Under Secretary Thomas Modly will become acting Navy secretary, according to the Pentagon.

The Air Force is still led by its own acting secretary, with former Under Secretary Matt Donovan at the helm until expected nominee Barbara Barrett is confirmed. Trump in May tweeted his plan to nominate Barrett, though that process has not begun.