Likely Pentagon Nominee Jumps Into Iran Crisis
Mark Esper has ties to Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, but some wonder if he has the stature to stand up to Trump.
Army Secretary Mark Esper won’t have much time to train up as President Donald Trump’s newest acting Pentagon chief. The U.S. Army veteran and defense industry lobbyist, who a defense official confirmed Friday is “highly likely” to get the nod for the permanent job, takes control of the U.S. Defense Department at a critical moment, as tensions in the Middle East escalate to new heights over Iran’s downing of a U.S. military drone this week.
It’s not yet known what Esper’s views are on Iran, or what advice he gave the president during the furious internal debate leading up to Trump’s last-minute decision to abort an imminent U.S. military attack in response to the shootdown. What is clear is that the voices on Trump’s national security team urging caution prevailed on Thursday night over the hawks gunning for a strike.
Although the U.S. and Iranian governments moved to ease tensions on Friday, the question of how to deal with a troublesome Tehran is not going away soon. But experts and former and current officials say Esper’s close ties to the heavyweights on the president’s national security team will likely help him navigate the cutthroat politics of a volatile administration facing crises on multiple fronts.
Esper, who experts expect to sail through the confirmation process, has known National Security Advisor John Bolton since they both worked in the George W. Bush administration. His relationship with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo goes back even further, to their days at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The two, along with David Urban, a political operative who helped advise Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in Pennsylvania, graduated from the academy in 1986.
As Army secretary for the last two years, Esper also shared a wall with Trump’s nominee to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley.
“Their relationships are rock solid,” said one senior defense official about Esper’s ties to the other members of Trump’s national security team. “They have a rapport that’s going to be immediate.”
Even so, it’s no easy task to move immediately from a focus on logistical and tactical issues like the future of the Army to immediate strategic challenges such as a threatening Iran. And some who know Esper wonder how well he can navigate the huge leap from Army chief to defense secretary and whether he has the personal heft to stand up to the president—not to mention heavyweights like Bolton and Pompeo—on major policy matters.
Esper has “the smarts” to understand the issues, but he may not have the “big, outsize personality” needed to hold his own in the administration, said Jim Townsend, a former senior Pentagon official. “I just don’t know if walking into that room he’s a big enough cowboy,” Townsend said. “I don’t want to say he’s weak. I just would rather have someone walking in there who is a little more John Wayne.”
Relationships between members of the U.S. national security team can notoriously make or break careers, and the dynamics can bolster or hamstring U.S. foreign policy. Trump’s first defense secretary, James Mattis, saw this firsthand: After losing two key allies with the departure of then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Mattis’s influence soon declined. Bolton actively worked to oust Mattis, and Pompeo also came to hold more sway with the president. Ultimately, the retired U.S. Marine Corps general resigned over Trump’s decision—since reversed—to pull all U.S. troops from Syria.
In Esper’s case, the dynamics of Trump’s national security team could work in his favor. Pompeo, in particular, has been a “big advocate” for Esper, said another administration official.
“They won’t pull the knives out on each other because those West Point classes tend to stick together,” Townsend said. Trump himself indicated that he would soon nominate Esper for the permanent position, calling him “a highly respected gentleman with a great career … a tremendous talent.”
One former senior defense official expressed concern that Milley, a loud and imposing former hockey player, has Esper “around his finger.” But the second administration official dismissed speculation that Esper was weak.
“I don’t think he’s a puppet for Milley. Esper knows the town really well and holds his own,” the official said, stressing that he has been “by far the most effective and competent service secretary.”
Another former senior defense official agreed that Esper was not one to knuckle under pressure from the White House—a criticism that was often lobbied at his predecessor, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who withdrew his name from consideration for the permanent job on Tuesday after reports surfaced about domestic violence in his family.
“He’s his own person,” the former official said of Esper. “He’s not a yes man. He knows what is at stake and whose lives are on the line.”
Esper takes the reins of the Pentagon as tensions in the Middle East spiked again this week, after the Trump administration recently accused Iran of masterminding attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, a major shipping route. Accounts differ on where exactly the drone, an RQ-4 Global Hawk, was shot down. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said it shot down an “intruding American spy drone” after it entered Iranian territory. But Lt. Gen. Joseph Guastella, the commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, disputed that account, telling reporters at the Pentagon by phone that the drone was shot down by an IRGC surface-to-air missile system while operating over the strait and fell into international waters.
At the time of the intercept, the drone was operating roughly 34 kilometers (about 21 miles) from the nearest point of land on the Iranian coast, Guastella said.
“This dangerous and escalatory attack was irresponsible and occurred in the vicinity of established air corridors between Dubai, [United Arab Emirates], and Muscat, Oman, possibly endangering innocent civilians,” he said.
As Trump’s national security team scrambles to deal with the crisis, experts and former and current officials say Esper’s credentials could serve him in the Pentagon job. Esper’s diverse background includes more than 10 years in the Army, during which he served as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division. Later, he commanded an airborne rifle company in Europe and served as an Army fellow at the Pentagon.
Esper also has extensive experience on Capitol Hill, which experts say prepares him well for navigating the interagency process and getting things done in Washington. Esper served as a senior professional staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and as policy director for the House Armed Services Committee. He also worked in senior positions for Sen. Chuck Hagel, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Sen. Fred Thompson’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“He knows the importance of a strong relationship with Congress, working across the aisle, and the criticality of making sure men and women in uniform have the equipment they need,” said Mark Jacobson, a former public servant who held senior positions in the Pentagon and on the Hill.
Top lawmakers also spoke highly of Esper after the announcement, indicating that his confirmation process, if he is nominated for the permanent job, will be smooth.
“I’ve known him for a long time. I think he’s good — in fact, I’ve been in the field with him to see how he does with troops,” Sen. James Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the New York Times. “He does an exceptionally good job.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham said he could vote for Esper as permanent defense secretary “without equivocation.”
Arnold Punaro, a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee who prepared Esper and Shanahan for their confirmation hearings in 2017, also predicted Esper’s confirmation would be “rapid.” He added that Esper’s nomination would be good for morale.
“Esper is a favorite of the troops,” Punaro said. “They are always raving about Esper because he’s lifting weights, he’s running out there with the troops. He’s a grunt.”
At the Pentagon, Esper served in the Bush administration as deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy from 2002 to 2004, where his portfolio included nonproliferation and arms control. After leaving government, Esper also spent time in the defense industry, serving as executive vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association and as vice president of government relations at Raytheon.
Esper’s experience at the defense firm, best known for manufacturing the precision-guided weapons the United States is selling to Saudi Arabia for use in the devastating war in Yemen, could become a flash point in his confirmation process. Esper would likely have to recuse himself from any discussions involving the firm, which is also set to merge with United Technologies Corp. in a controversial deal that would create the second-largest defense contractor in the United States.
But experts said his experience at Raytheon would not encumber Esper the way Shanahan’s 30 years at Boeing did his predecessor. Esper has “zero continuing financial interest” in Raytheon and had “nothing to do” with the merger or foreign military sales, Punaro said.
“It’s not the same thing as being the engineer who designed and managed” the products, like Shanahan, who oversaw Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft and worked on the company’s missile defense systems and rotorcraft, said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute. “He’s not the sort of person who has developed too close a relationship to his product. Shanahan spent his entire life developing Boeing products.”
In fact, experts said Esper’s experience in the defense industry could help him effectively navigate the new job.
“Mark has been in the town. He knows the town. Success in the role largely depends on leveraging one’s relationships and experience to get things done on the Hill and frankly with industry,” said the second former senior defense official.
Esper was Trump’s third choice to be Army secretary, after the withdrawals of Vincent Viola and Mark Green. He assumed the position in November 2017.