Defense secretary nominee Mark T. Esper testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on July 16, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Army Secretary Mark T. Esper made his case to become the nation’s next Pentagon chief before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and received widespread support — apart from a broadside by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who raised questions about his years as a top defense company lobbyist and called his ethics commitments unsatisfactory.

Esper, a former Army officer, Pentagon official and congressional staffer, breezed through questions about Iran, NATO and China, while striking notes of bipartisanship and echoing the views of former defense secretary Jim Mattis, who broke with President Trump over policy last December and resigned. In their questions and comments, senators on both sides of the aisle signaled that Esper would be confirmed.

Still, midway through the testimony, Esper confronted the biggest issue facing his confirmation: the years he spent as a top lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon. Warren pressed the Army secretary on his refusal to extend a 24-month ethics commitment he signed upon returning to the Pentagon in 2017. That agreement, which expires in November, forces him to steer clear of decisions involving the company.

Warren criticized Esper for seeking an exception to that ethics obligation in the meantime, which would permit him to get a waiver to weigh in on matters involving Raytheon in specific cases where no other senior defense official can make a decision — an arrangement that she said “smacks of corruption.”

Warren also asked Esper if he would commit to not working for a private defense company for four years after he leaves the Pentagon, in accordance with a new law she has proposed. Esper declined. 

“Secretary Esper, the American people deserve to know that you are making decisions in our country’s best security interests, not your own financial interests,” Warren said. “If you can’t make those commitments to this committee, it means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense.”

Esper countered that he swore an oath at 18 years old when he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and has lived an ethical life.

“I went to war for this country. I served overseas for this country. I stepped down from jobs that paid me well more than I was working anywhere else,” he said. “And each time, it was to serve the public good and the young men and women of our armed forces. So, no. I think for some reason the presumption is that anyone who comes from the business or corporate world is corrupt.”

Several Republican senators on the panel quickly moved to defend Esper. Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told Esper that the committee by and large was not there to question his integrity, which had already been established. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) apologized that Esper was being “demonized” by Warren for his time in the private sector.

“I guess she just needed a moment for a presidential campaign,” Scott said. “But I believe you deserve to be confirmed.”

Raytheon received $18.1 billion in unclassified federal contract dollars from the Defense Department last year, making it the third-largest U.S. defense contractor. It’s in the process of merging with United Technologies, which had about $6.17 billion in Pentagon contracts last year. That merger is expected to close in early 2020.

Esper, 55, has served in the Trump administration since November 2017, when he was confirmed as the top civilian in the U.S. Army with an 89-6 vote. Warren voted against him.

He has had a long and varied career in Washington that includes years on Capitol Hill as a senior staff member advising Republican lawmakers, employment as a top official at the conservative Heritage Foundation, stints in top roles at the Pentagon and seven years at Raytheon as a lobbyist. He served on active duty in the Army for over 10 years and participated in the Gulf War, and then served on reserve duty in the National Guard and Army Reserve for 11 years. 

In introducing him, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) praised Esper’s handling of a recent crisis over poor military housing and described the Army secretary as “a person of sound character and moral courage.”

If confirmed, Esper will take over a Defense Department that has seen leadership turmoil for more than half a year, vacant positions across the building and challenges with disciplined policymaking and communications in an administration where Trump often issues decisions by tweet. He will also be the steward of a broad effort to revamp the military to face off against China and Russia, rather than terrorism and insurgency in the Middle East.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the committee, emphasized the importance of bringing leadership to the department, including by filling the vacant positions.

“I am concerned that the Defense Department is adrift in a way I have not seen in my time on Capitol Hill,” said Reed, who has been in Congress for more than 28 years. “Your success may even be contingent upon ensuring these civilian vacancies are filled quickly and with capable and talented individuals.” 

Esper was elevated to acting defense secretary last month after the resignation of Patrick M. Shanahan, whose nomination for Pentagon chief was upended by revelations of turmoil in his family.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Esper repeatedly highlighted security concerns he sees with the rise of China, noting that the threat posed by Beijing in the long run “cannot be overstated.”

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) pointed out that when Mattis resigned in December, the former defense secretary cited disagreements with Trump over the need to support allies and treat them with respect, and to bolster a rules-based international order that has benefited the United States for decades. 

“I think that is the one thing that is definitely under threat from Russia and certainly China,” Esper said. “China wants to reorder the global order. They want to do everything from replace institutions to replace the dollar. So I’m fully committed to that. I see the big picture, if you will.”

Peters asked whether that means Esper is more closely aligned with Mattis than Trump on the issues. Esper declined to answer directly.

“I don’t know where to pick between the two, but clearly I share Secretary Mattis’s views, and I’ve shared that publicly,” he said.

Esper, under questioning, added that he would consider resigning in the future if he is asked to do anything that is illegal, immoral or unethical.

In his few weeks on the job as acting Pentagon chief, Esper sought to reassure allies, casting himself as a stabilizing force as he met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

During the hearing Tuesday, Esper told Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) that he would be willing to stand up to the president and express his support for NATO and U.S. alliances.

Esper also said that he advocates putting diplomacy first with Iran, following provocative acts that left the Trump administration on the brink of launching a military strike in June.

Under questioning from Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D.-Ill.), Esper said that the United States cannot use the authorization for use of military force that Congress approved after 9/11 to attack Iran. The United States has the right to respond to any attack on U.S. troops, he said. But absent that, the existing authorization approved by Congress in 2001 would not apply because it applies to terrorist groups, he said.

Duckworth said that she “looked forward to his confirmation.”

During the hearing, Esper praised the way a British warship recently intervened when a Revolutionary Guard Corps vessel from Iran tried to prevent a British oil tanker from entering the Strait of Hormuz. Esper said that’s the kind of concept the Pentagon envisions functioning throughout the Strait, “so that we don’t get into a fight” and push disputes “into the diplomatic realm.”  

Esper graduated from West Point in 1986 with now-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and served in the Gulf War before transitioning to the Virginia Army National Guard.

His career on Capitol Hill included time as a senior staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and as an adviser to then-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

As Army secretary, Esper has largely avoided controversy, focusing on modernizing the service and establishing Army Futures Command, a headquarters led by a four-star general looking for technological advantages. His biggest struggle came over a crisis regarding the poor standards of military housing — and senators were impressed with his handling of the fallout, which included drawing up a tenants’ bill of rights for service members.  

Aaron Gregg contributed to this report.