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Senate confirms Mark Esper as defense secretary

The U.S. Senate confirmed Mark Esper as defense secretary on July 23, ending the longest period that the Pentagon has been without a permanent top official. (Video: Reuters)

The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to confirm Mark T. Esper as defense secretary, ending a months-long vacancy created when Jim Mattis resigned last year over policy disagreements with President Trump.

The 90-to-8 vote reflected broad bipartisan support for Esper — who has spent most of his career in the military and in government — at a time when the country is confronting disparate national security threats and contemplating military engagement with Iran.

Many also see Esper’s confirmation as an important step toward restoring authority at a Pentagon that is increasingly at odds with Trump’s inner circle of White House advisers.

Esper was sworn in later Tuesday at the White House by Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

“I am confident that he will be an outstanding secretary of defense,” Trump said. “I have absolutely no doubt about it. He is outstanding in every way.”

As he thanked the president, Esper said: “It is an honor of a lifetime to be appointed secretary of defense and to lead the greatest military in history. And I will do so with that same energy and commitment to honor, duty and country that I have for nearly four decades, since my early days at West Point.”

Esper, 55, who had served as Army secretary since late 2017, previously worked on Capitol Hill as a senior Republican staffer, in top positions at the Pentagon and at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He also served in the Army for more than a decade and fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

The only significant challenge to his bid to become Pentagon chief arose from his stint as a lobbyist for Raytheon, a major defense contractor, and his resistance to extending a two-year commitment he made as Army secretary to recuse himself from decisions involving the company.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a presidential hopeful, grilled Esper about his decision during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, arguing that if he would not commit to better distance himself from Raytheon, “you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense.”

Esper and many Republicans charged that Warren was unfairly pillorying him as potentially corrupt solely because of his corporate credentials.

Of the eight Senate Democrats who voted against Esper’s nomination, five are running to replace Trump as president in 2020: Warren, Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala D. Harris (Calf.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.). A sixth presidential hopeful, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), missed the vote.

Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also voted against Esper’s nomination.

Trump nominated Esper to lead the Pentagon just over one month ago, and last week Esper made his case for the job to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The speed of his confirmation stands in contrast to the months that Patrick Shanahan’s bid for the job languished in limbo, until it ended last month amid revelations of turmoil in his family.

After the vote, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, expressed concern about “the lack of stable leadership at the Department of Defense and the message it sends to our adversaries.”

“As Secretary of Defense, it will be critical that Secretary Esper deliver hard truths to the Commander in Chief, and resist political interference in the Department’s policies and missions,” Shaheen said in a statement.

Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) called Esper “the strong leader our military needs.”

“After serving our country in uniform, Esper spent his civilian career ensuring that the men and women who serve in our armed forces have every tool necessary to do their job and do it well,” McSally, the nation’s first female fighter pilot to fly in combat, said in a statement. “I am confident he will serve our country with the integrity and dedication the role demands.”