New Defense Secretary Poised For Confirmation Despite Vast Conflicts Of Interest
“Let me get this straight. You’re still due to get at least a million-dollar payout from when you lobbied for Raytheon. You won’t commit to recuse yourself.”
Mark Esper won the approval of the Senate Armed Service Committee to serve as U.S. Defense Secretary on Thursday, preceding a likely confirmation for the nominee next week. Esper survived an intense round of questioning in his confirmation hearing from Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday, who pointed to his years of work as a lobbyist for private defense company Raytheon as a severe conflict of interest.
Since Gen. James Mattis resigned in January, the U.S. has spent seven months without a Senate-confirmed defense secretary. Former acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan was considered for a permanent position, but withdrew in June over a 2010 domestic abuse incident he did not want to bring to national attention.
Mark Esper, Raytheon Lobbyist
Esper, who spent seven years as the top lobbyist at major Pentagon defense contractor Raytheon, was grilled by Sen. Warren over potential conflicts-of-interest clouding his confirmation.
“Let me get this straight. You’re still due to get at least a million-dollar payout from when you lobbied for Raytheon. You won’t commit to recuse yourself,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “You insist on being free to seek a waiver that would let you make decisions affecting Raytheon’s bottom line and your remaining financial interest. And you won’t rule out taking a trip right back through the revolving door on your way out of government service.”
Esper refused to commit to abstaining from requesting a waiver to involve himself in decisions involving Raytheon, arguing he hadn’t done so in his previous years of public service. The nominee also declined to commit to waiting for four years before returning to Raytheon or another private company after finishing his public service.
Esper said he had been advised by ethics specialists not to make those commitments, and cited his military service as evidence of his dedication to the public over private financial interests.
Sen. Warren was unsatisfied, pointing to the former acting Secretary Shanahan’s commitment to recuse himself of decisions involving his former employer Boeing. “You can’t make those commitments to this committee, that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense,” said Warren.
Revolving Door of Influence
Esper worked as vice president of government relations for Raytheon before joining the Trump administration in 2017. The Hill listed Esper as one of Washington’s most influential corporate lobbyists in 2015 and 2016.
Esper is among many former private defense workers transitioning to and from private defense companies and the government. In November 2018, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released an analysis of the Trump administration’s defense sector, finding 645 instances of federal employees working for the top 20 Pentagon contractors in fiscal year 2016.
A September 2018 report from The Wall Street Journal provides a clear example of how the defense sector’s revolving door influences foreign policy. The Journal revealed that then-Assistant Secretary of State Charles Faulkner, another former Raytheon lobbyist, convinced Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to continue the US policy of backing the Saudi coalition for the sake of a $2 billion dollar deal with his former employer. Faulkner later stepped down amid scrutiny from the report.
According to William D. Hartung of The Nation, Raytheon’s upcoming merger with United Technologies will give it “more money to make campaign contributions, more money to hire lobbyists, and more production sites that can be used as leverage over members of Congress loathe to oppose spending on weapons produced in their states or districts.” Both companies are heavily involved in arms deals with the Saudi coalition in Yemen.
Notably, the ongoing peace talks in Afghanistan were not mentioned during the nearly three-hour confirmation hearing, reflecting how neglected the longest war in US history has become in the national conversation.
Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe said Esper’s final confirmation vote would occur no later then next Tuesday.
“He couldn’t answer three basic ethics questions,” Warren told reporters, asserting she would object to Esper’s nomination. “He should not become secretary of Defense.”