For the first time in nearly seven months, the Defense Department has a Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense, officially ending the longest period in the nation’s history that the Pentagon went without a permanent leader.
Mark Esper, the former Raytheon executive and Army Secretary, received overwhelming bipartisan support Tuesday in the Senate with an 90-8 vote. He’s scheduled to be formally sworn-in Tuesday evening.
Esper’s confirmation culminates a rocky 204-day period in which the Defense Department went through three Acting Defense Secretaries after James Mattis stepped down from the job on Dec. 31. The leadership vacuum that followed came as the U.S. faced headwinds from virtually every corner of the globe.
Esper, 55, who has experience inside government and the military, will now be responsible for juggling a host of complicated issues: the continued fight against terror groups in the Middle East, Russia’s renewed resurgence in Europe and China’s muscular rise in Asia. He’ll also have to manage the expectations of a demanding Commander-in-Chief in President Donald Trump. New policy declarations, often made via Twitter, have caught military brass flat-footed: the withdrawal from Syria, the transgender troop ban, a proposal for a massive military parade and the decision to send thousands of active duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Business has continued apace at the Pentagon, but the building has lacked an authoritative voice in policy matters since Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, left the Administration. Ever since, national security matters have been in the hands of Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who happened to graduate from U.S. Military Academy the same year as Esper.
Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Esper during his July 16 confirmation hearing that, “the Defense Department is adrift in a way I have not seen my whole time on Capitol Hill.”
After graduating from West Point in 1986, Esper served as active-duty Army for more than a decade. He was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division during the first Gulf War and later commanded a rifle company in Europe. He also served in both the Virginia and District of Columbia National Guard, and Army Reserve.
Esper picked up political experience working on national security issues for Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He later took a job with the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade and lobbying organization for defense contractors. Most recently, he was a lobbying executive at Raytheon, one of the world’s largest arms manufacturers.
Trump’s first pick for Defense Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, decided to pull out from the nomination process in June following news reports that he, his ex-wife and son were involved in domestic violence incidents in 2010 and 2011.
At the time, Esper was named Acting Secretary and received the nomination for the full-time job shortly thereafter. He’s thus far maintained a low public profile, but has forged ties with Capitol Hill and the Pentagon as Army Secretary, a position he’s held since late 2017. He’ll take over as Defense Secretary from Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, who has been acting Secretary of Defense since July 15.