The Senate confirmed Secretary of the Army Mark Esper in a bipartisan vote Tuesday, officially making him President Trump’s second secretary of defense.
Esper was approved by the Senate 90-8. His confirmation follows nearly seven months of leadership shuffles at the Pentagon following the surprise resignation of former acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan in June.
Esper’s confirmation process was expedited by the Senate Armed Services Committee in an effort to stabilize the Pentagon’s leadership. The Department of Defense has had three acting secretaries since former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis left office at the end of 2018.
Shanahan’s resignation under pressure from the administration created an unusual succession within the Department of Defense, which saw Esper take over as acting secretary for three weeks. Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer took over for Esper last week following his formal nomination to become permanent secretary of defense.
Esper had a smooth confirmation. He was endorsed by fellow Virginian, Sen. Tim Kaine, the former Democratic nominee for vice president, who called Esper “a person of sound character and moral courage.”
“Most of us were very discouraged by the resignation of Secretary Mattis. And what we’ve hoped for is a successor who could show the same level of candor and principle and a willingness to remain independent even in the most challenging circumstances,” Kaine said. “I believe that Dr. Esper has those traits.”
Most of the committee’s questions centered on threats posed by Russia and China and the military’s modernization efforts. Senators did not ask any direct questions regarding the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Among the Democrats voting against Esper were Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, all 2020 presidential hopefuls.
Warren sparred with Esper at his confirmation hearing, equating his refusal to agree to ethics rules not required by with “corruption plain and simple.”
Esper graduated from West Point in 1986 and commissioned as an infantry officer. He served with the 101st Airborne Division during the Gulf War and retired from military service in 2007 after 10 years on active duty and 11 in the reserve and National Guard.
His post-military career included stints at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C., and several positions working for Congress on Capitol Hill. He also served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy at the Pentagon during the George W. Bush administration.
Prior to becoming Secretary of the Army, Esper served as vice president for government relations at Raytheon, a major defense contractor. This experience prompted the exchange with Warren on Tuesday, as the Massachusetts senator claimed Esper had a conflict of interest due to his past as the defense contractor’s chief lobbyist.
In addition to his West Point degree, Esper holds a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a doctorate from George Washington University.
Esper will take charge of the Pentagon in the midst of the Department of Defense’s transition from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations to a focus on great power competition with Russia and China, a central focus of the 2017 National Defense Strategy. He will also oversee the Pentagon’s ambitious plans to modernize the force and invest in new technologies.
Esper will enter office one day after the White House and Congressional leaders agreed on a budget deal that includes $738 billion for defense in 2020 — $12 billion short of the administration’s original request. While the agreement left some Republicans unhappy, it will avoid the funding crisis the Pentagon’s top brass said could have devastating effects on the military’s modernization efforts.