The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed Army secretary Mark Esper to be secretary of Defence, ending the longest period by far that the Pentagon has been without a permanent top official.
The Senate backed Esper, a former soldier and lobbyist for weapons maker Raytheon Co., to be President Donald Trump’s second confirmed leader of the Pentagon, by a 90-8 vote.
Esper, 55, received strong bipartisan support despite some sharp questioning during his confirmation hearing by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren about his ties to Raytheon and his refusal to extend an ethics commitment he signed in 2017 to avoid decisions involving the company.
Warren, a 2020 presidential hopeful, was the only member of the Senate armed services committee to voice opposition to Esper’s confirmation during the hearing.
Raytheon is the third-largest U.S. defence contractor.
There has been no confirmed Defence secretary since Jim Mattis resigned last New Year’s eve over policy differences with Trump. Mattis offered to stay another two months to get a successor in place, but Trump said no. Then deputy defence secretary Patrick Shanahan stepped in as acting secretary, but quit after just six months.
Many members of Congress from both parties had urged the Republican president to act urgently to fill the powerful position. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called on members to support Esper as he opened the Senate on Tuesday morning.
“The nominee is beyond qualified. His record of public service is beyond impressive. His commitment to serving our service members if beyond obvious. And the need for a Senate-confirmed secretary of defence is beyond urgent,” McConnell said.
Four of the eight “No” votes came from senators who are running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination — Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar.
Esper had served as a congressional aide and a Pentagon official under Republican President George W. Bush before working for Raytheon. He has been Army secretary since November 2017.
Trump’s previous pick to be secretary of Defence, former Boeing Co. executive Patrick Shanahan, withdrew from consideration on June 18 after reports emerged of domestic violence in his family.
Pentagon leadership issues not over
Even with Esper now in charge, the problem of leadership instability at the Pentagon is not fully resolved. There still is no Senate-confirmed deputy secretary of Defence, although David Norquist was nominated Tuesday for the post and is scheduled to have a confirmation hearing Wednesday.
The senior leadership vacancies increased again last week with the departure of David Trachtenberg, the Pentagon’s second-ranking civilian policy official.
Beyond that, the No. 2-ranking military officer, Gen. Paul Selva, is retiring Friday as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No Senate confirmation hearing has been set for the man picked by Trump to replace Selva: Gen. John Hyten, who has been commander of nuclear forces as head of U.S. Strategic Command.
A military officer has also accused Hyten of sexual misconduct . An investigation found insufficient evidence to charge Hyten, but some members of Congress have raised questions about that process. It’s unclear when or whether Hyten’s nomination will proceed.
At his confirmation hearing on July 16, Esper promised that one of his first priorities would be to fix the problem of leadership vacancies.