Esper Takes Over as 27th Secretary of Defense

Mark Esper, shown here during his July 16, 2019, Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, has been confirmed as the nation's next defense secretary. Defense Department photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith.

For the first time in seven months, the Pentagon has a leader confirmed in the position by the Senate.

The Senate on July 23 confirmed Mark Esper to be the 27th defense secretary by a vote of 90-8. Hours later, he was sworn in at the White House by President Donald Trump.

Esper sailed through his confirmation process, which officially began when his name was formally submitted to the Senate eight days before the vote. The Senate Armed Services Committee waived regular procedural rules to hold his confirmation hearing the next day.

The confirmation hearing was largely cordial, with bipartisan support. However, he faced tough questioning from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) about his connections to former employer Raytheon and potential conflict-of-interest issues. Bloomberg reported that Esper, in a July 19 letter to Warren, agreed to recuse himself from issues related to the Raytheon-United Technologies merger, but Warren and seven other Democrats still voted against his nomination.

Esper has served as Army secretary since November 2017. He is a graduate of West Point, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was one of his classmates. Trump announced his intent to nominate him to the top Pentagon job in late June, after Patrick Shanahan, the previous acting defense secretary and presumptive nominee, withdrew his name from consideration.

Shanahan had served as acting secretary since January, after former defense secretary Jim Mattis was abruptly fired after announcing his resignation. Once Shanahan left, Esper was promptly named acting secretary. He stepped aside from that position once formally nominated, and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer served as acting secretary in the interim until Esper officially took the job.

Also on July 23, the White House formally submitted the nomination of Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist to be deputy secretary of defense. Norquist, who has for months performed the duties of this position, will appear before the SASC on July 24. Since Norquist also cannot serve in the deputy position in an acting manner once nominated, the Pentagon said Spencer, for the time being, will perform the duties of deputy until Norquist is confirmed and sworn-in.

Now that Esper has been confirmed, the Pentagon expects Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy, who is currently serving as acting Army secretary, to be nominated to lead that service.

Once that happens, the Air Force will be the only service without a confirmed secretary. Undersecretary Matt Donovan has been the acting USAF civilian leader since Heather Wilson departed in May, and the White House has said it will nominate former Ambassador to Finland Barbara Barrett as the next Air Force secretary. However, that nomination has not yet been forwarded to the Senate.