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Esper’s SecDef Hearing Set, But Nomination Still Missing

Posted by Paul McLeary on

Esper, and the nominee to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley, at Arlington National Cemetery. (US Army photo)

THE PENTAGON: The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) has received answers to advance policy questions and background check information for Acting Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and it has scheduled a confirmation hearing Tuesday morning — despite the lack of a formal nomination from the White House. 

The move reflects the frustration lawmakers have expressed about having two acting defense secretaries in place for the past 6 months, and could be seen as a prod by committee chairman Jim Inhofe to the Trump Administration to submit the nomination.  

The White House announced Esper as the replacement for former Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan three weeks ago, and President Donald Trump indicated he would nominate him shortly. Shanahan had been announced as Trump’s pick to lead the Defense Department in March, but was never actually nominated as a lengthy background check was conducted. He stepped down after details of a messy family situation came to light.

Inhofe told reporters Tuesday he also wants to see David Norquist, the Pentagon’s acting deputy secretary, confirmed. “Norquist is going to be right behind him.” 

“We need Senate-confirmed leadership at the Pentagon, and quickly,” the SASC chairman said in a statement. Trying to blunt potential criticism that the Republican-led committee might be moving too quickly without conducting due diligence on the nominee, he added, “while we will act expeditiously to consider Acting Secretary Esper’s expected nomination, the Committee will uphold our constitutional advice-and-consent responsibilities with the care and consideration this position deserves.”

The committee’s Ranking Member Jack Reed added, “Chairman Inhofe knows better than anyone how critical it is to have a permanent Secretary of Defense, and I commend him for his bipartisan leadership.” He also nodded to concerns over how speedy this process looks to have become. “We’re expediting the process, but there are no shortcuts and this nominee, like every nominee to this critical post, must be thoroughly vetted and carefully evaluated.” 

Pentagon spokeswoman Col. DeDe Halfhill confirmed to me that Esper will remain acting secretary until the Senate receives his official nomination. Once that happens, under rules outlined in the Vacancies Act, Esper will step aside and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer will take over on a temporary basis, making him the third acting defense secretary this year. Spencer is expected to also fill the role of deputy secretary once Norquist is officially nominated, a move also expected within days.

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