WASHINGTON: With Army Secretary Mark Esper stepping up as acting Secretary of Defense, many in the service think Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy should fill in for Esper. But informal Trump advisor Jack Keane and allies in the White House are apparently pushing assistant secretary Bruce Jette to sit at Esper’s desk.
Keane is a retired four-star general and vice chief of the Army who has reportedly twice refused Trump’s offer to the Defense Secretary job himself. Sources now say he’s campaigning for Jette, who comes as a surprise candidate to many in the Army community.
The jostling is playing out amid a larger drama, as Pentagon officials scramble to figure out what comes next in a bureaucracy about to seat its third leader in six months, the last two of which have not been officially nominated, or approved by the Senate.
Esper is still waiting to speak to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, who is traveling. The two will meet later this week, a defense official said. Dunford will depart later this year; nominated to replace him is Gen. Mark Milley, until recently the Army chief of staff and a close collaborator of Esper, McCarthy, and Jette.
It’s unclear how any of this will shake out in the near-term, but current Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is set to transfer authority to Esper at midnight on June 23. That quick turnaround has led to speculation as to how long Esper will remain acting, and if he will eventually get the nomination.
President Trump left the door open to nominating the former Army officer, telling reporters Wednesday, “that’s what I’m thinking about doing.”
But, as ever, it’s unclear how seriously to take the mercurial president’s comments. Nor is it clear what the feelings of others in the White House, Capitol Hill, and the Pentagon might be, though a handful of Democrats, Republicans, and Independent lawmakers praised him over the past 24 hours.
“Esper has a long history of dedicated service to this nation,” said Senate Armed Services chairman Jim Inhofe, “and he has shown excellent judgment in his current position, which I expect will continue as he assumes the role of Acting Secretary of Defense.”
But after six months of an acting secretary, Inhofe, who was supportive of Shanahan’s pending nomination, appears to have had enough: “As I’ve said before, for the sake of our national security, we need a confirmed Secretary of Defense — not just an acting — and I hope we can get to that point as quickly as possible.”
The ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, echoed those comments Tuesday, saying “it is critical that the President nominate, and that the Senate confirm, a permanent Secretary of Defense as quickly as possible. This job should be filled in a matter of a few weeks, not months.”
What about the Army?
As the three most powerful civilians in the Army Department, Esper, McCarthy, and Jette have formed by all accounts a tight-knit and effective team. That’s particularly remarkable because they’ve had abundant opportunities for conflict as they turned the Army bureaucracy upside down.
In particular, Esper and McCarthy pushed through a radical overhaul of Army acquisition — the service’s biggest reorganization in 40 years — by uniting research labs, future warfare concepts and doctrine, and procurement programs in a single Army Futures Command, led by a uniformed officer, Gen. John Murray. But by law, a service’s procurement programs answer to the civilian Service Acquisition Executive, in this case Jette.
That means Army program managers now have two masters, with overlapping but not identical responsibilities. This kind of “matrixed” org chart is arguably more flexible than rigidly delineated fiefdoms but also more prone to confusion and bureaucratic tug of war. Congress in particular was concerned that the new structure might muddy oversight and undermine Jette’s statutory authority. But legislators seem satisfied with how the complex arrangement is working out, and we’ve heard no grumblings or rumblings of significant strife so far.
Jette also had to work closely with McCarthy and Esper, because they got into the details of a wide range of weapons programs in a way we’ve never seen from the Army’s top civilians before. The three sat side-by-side in hours of grueling “Night Court” sessions that reviewed every program in the 2020-2024 budget plan, cutting or cancelling 186 of them to free up over $33 billion for higher priorities.
The budget bloodbath riled plenty of critics in Congress, industry, and within the Army. But the three men and their uniformed partners like Gen. Milley have presented a united front without any signs of behind-the-scenes sniping over what to cut. In fact, for the 2021-2025 budget now in the works, where the service is seeking another $10 billion in savings, Esper and McCarthy felt confident enough to pull back a bit from Night Court and delegate the program-by-program review to Jette and Murray.
The three men also have a lot in common: They’re all former Army officers with experience in both the defense industry and public service. But they have very different personal styles.
Esper, a Gulf War veteran with long experience on the Hill, is the most diplomatic of the three men — although he didn’t hesitate to fight back, politely, when pressed about cuts to the CH-47 Chinook helicopter and other programs. He’s been more vocal than we predicted upon his nomination, which followed two failed Trump picks for Army Secretary, but Esper has backed Gen. Milley’s modernization plan while tempering the general’s rough edges and largely avoiding controversy either in public or within the administration.
By contrast, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer had to deal with President Trump’s repeated criticisms of the service’s flagship Ford-class carrier program. Recently departed Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson publicly and vehemently denounced the idea of a Space Force until Trump unexpectedly embraced it.
McCarthy is the youngest of the three men, an Afghanistan veteran and a former Army Ranger. That background shows in his seemingly irrepressible energy, overflowing with enthusiasm for the Army’s reforms and comfortable with both big ideas and programmatic details. He’s already served as acting Army Secretary, before Esper’s confirmation, and afterwards Esper made McCarthy his point man on some tough organizational and budgetary changes.
But that role, and his assertive style, may have made McCarthy some enemies within the Pentagon, which might explain the push for an alternative candidate.
Finally there’s Jette, the oldest of the three and the only engineer. His grey hair and glasses, mastery of detail, moments of brutal candor, and relaxed, occasionally rambling speaking style all call to mind a college professor — with a dash of mad scientist when he enthuses about some new technology like robotic gun turrets. With decades of experience on both the industry and government sides of defense procurement, Jette’s intimately versed in high technology and acquisition arcana, such as intellectual property rights for software. But he’s not staked out public positions on higher profile issues.
Back to the Hill
Despite reports that the Senate Armed Services Committee would hold a nomination hearing for Shanahan on July 11, a SASC staffer told me there was never anything on the schedule, because an official nomination from the White House had never been sent to the Hill.
Now the White House — burned by another vetting scandal in overlooking Shanahan’s complicated and messy divorce — would presumably make sure Esper, or someone else, is thoroughly checked out before sending the Senate its nominee.
But even more complications remain If Trump were to nominate him, Esper would first have to step down from the acting post under stipulations contained in the Vacancy Act. That’s the precedent set by late Sen. John McCain, who as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee demanded that Eric Fanning step aside as acting Army Secretary while the committee considered his nomination to take the job permanently.
Despite all this. Esper has received positive reviews this week from at least two senior leaders on the left.
Esper “has a track record of public service both as a soldier and in government,” said Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a statement yesterday. “If confirmed, I am confident that Secretary Esper is capable of executing the national defense strategy in a way that is insulated from outside influence and political considerations.”
Speaking today on CNN, Maine Independent Senator Angus King said Esper “knows the Pentagon. He knows the military. I think he starts at a good place. But I’m going to reserve judgment until we have a hearing.”