Hoping the Third Time’s a Charm at the Department of Defense

Army secretary Mark Esper has been named acting defense secretary, making him the third person to head the Department of Defense of during Trump’s two-and-a-half years in office. Here’s hoping he has better luck at the job than his predecessors.
Esper got the nod after acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrew his nomination for the official post because of a domestic violence scandal. Unlike the three previous Trump administration appointees and the former Trump campaign official who resigned due to domestic violence scandals, in this case it was Shanahan’s now ex-wife who was arrested for battering him. That’s still something Shanahan didn’t want to have to explain at a confirmation hearing, and he was probably even less eager to answer questions about a son’s arrest for beating his mother with a baseball bat, and why Shanahan told the police and courts it was a case of self-defense.
Shanahan was preceded by Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general with a spotless reputation who breezed through his confirmation hearings and won bipartisan respect for his performance in the job, but he wound up resigning in less than a year, making it clear in his resignation letter that he disagreed with President Donald Trump on several important issues of national security. “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malignant actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” Mattis wrote. “Because you have to the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down.”
Esper’s confirmation hearing for his Army post didn’t turn up any scandals, so it’s unlikely the next round will dig up some dirt that the Trump administration’s notoriously lax vetting process overlooked. It’s also unlikely he’ll dare to differ with Trump with about anything, no matter how obviously wrong Trump might be.
The Democrats on the confirmation committee will probably have some questions to ask about Esper’s tenure as top lobbyist for Raytheon, the military’s second biggest contractor, but they would have had the same questions about Shanahan’s long career as high-ranking executive at Boeing, the military’s biggest contractor. The Democrats will probably have the same questions for any fourth nominee Trump might put forward, as he’s clearly comfortable with the military-industrial complex, and has jettisoned all the multi-starred generals and admirals he once bragged about for daring to disagree with him.
Esper’s outstanding resume includes the dean’s list as West Point, a master’s degree from Harvard’s school of government, and a doctorate in philosophy of all things from George Washington University. He served in the 101st Airborne Division during the first Gulf War, was chief of staff at the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, and has held various government posts in the executive and legislative branches.
Despite such impeccable credentials, he was Trump’s third choice for Army secretary after the first two withdrew their nominations, in one case because the nominee didn’t want to divest his business holdings in defense-related business, in the other because of controversial comments about transgender bathrooms and Islam.
Esper will have to answer some tough questions from the Democrats about his handling of several sexual assault and harassment cases he handled as Army secretary, but the Republicans who hold a sight majority in the Senate probably won’t much care about that. We expect he’ll once again be easily confirmed, and will wind up doing as good a job as can be expected in an administration where the president and his national security advisor and Secretary of State are feuding about how to handle Iran’s recent aggression . He no doubt knows far more about defense issues than Trump does, as do Trump’s national security advisor and Secretary of State,  but Esper also seems shrewd enough to not let the boss know that.

— Bud Norman

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