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Democrats Have Tough Questions For Esper, Nominee To Head The Pentagon


The top job at the Pentagon has been vacant for more than six months since General James Mattis quit as defense secretary. Next week, the Senate is expected to confirm Army Secretary Mark Esper as secretary of defense. Things mostly went smoothly for Esper at his confirmation hearing this week, but he did face some tough questions about his past working as a defense lobbyist.

NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Army Secretary Esper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee he was determined to counter the growing threats posed by great power competitors, such as China and Russia.


MARK ESPER: This requires us to modernize our forces and capitalize on rapid technological advancements in the fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, directed energy and hypersonics.

WELNA: As it happens, artificial intelligence, robotics, directed energy and hypersonics are all being developed by Raytheon, the nation's third-biggest defense contractor.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Secretary Esper, prior to becoming Army secretary, you were the top lobbyist for Raytheon.

WELNA: That's Democratic senator and presidential contender Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, where Raytheon's headquartered. Esper spent more than six years as the company's top lobbyist. Warren pointed out that his agreement as Army secretary to recuse himself from all matters concerning Raytheon expires in November.


WARREN: If you're confirmed, will you do the same and commit to extending your recusal from any and all matters involving Raytheon for the duration of your tenure as secretary of defense?

WELNA: He would not.


ESPER: On the advice of our - my ethics folks at the Pentagon, the career professionals, no. Their recommendation is not to.

WELNA: Warren then reminded Esper of a memo he recently sent to Pentagon ethics officials. It proposed an arrangement in which Esper, who's owed more than a million dollars in deferred payments by Raytheon, could participate if a matter concerning his former employer is, quote, "so important that it cannot be referred to another official."


WARREN: This smacks of corruption, plain and simple.

ESPER: I think the presumption is, for some reason, anybody that comes from the business or the corporate world is corrupt.

WELNA: Esper, who was in the same West Point class as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and served in the Gulf War, pointed to his 10 years of active-duty service in the Army and 11 subsequent years in the Reserves.


ESPER: I went to war for this country. I served overseas for this country. I've stepped down from jobs that paid me well more than what I was working anywhere else. And each time, it was to serve the public good and to serve the young men and women of our armed services.

WELNA: But Warren wasn't done with the grilling.


WARREN: If confirmed, will you commit not to work for or get paid by any defense contractor for at least four years after your government service?

ESPER: No, Senator, I will not.

WELNA: Florida Republican Rick Scott told Esper that Warren, quote, "just needed a moment for her presidential campaign."


RICK SCOTT: You're a highly qualified candidate. I'm very disappointed that Senator Warren would demonize you.

WELNA: Esper, in fact, would not be violating any current ethics rules or laws. That's according the Pentagon watchdog Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight. Working for military contractors before or after stints at the Department of Defense, she says, is simply business as usual.

MANDY SMITHBERGER: The Pentagon is kind of the epicenter of the swamp that the president campaigned on, where you see just this consistent revolving door occurring between DOD officials and the defense industry.

WELNA: Here's what President Trump had to say about that revolving door soon after getting elected.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think anybody that gives out these big contracts should never, ever, during their lifetime, be allowed to work for a defense company, for a company that makes that product. I don't know. It makes sense to me.


WELNA: It does not seem to make sense, though, to the man Trump's chosen to be the nation's next defense secretary.

David Welna, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "STRID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.