Report

Trump Nominates Army Secretary as Pentagon Chief

The president also announced he would promote Ryan McCarthy, a former Army ranger, to the top Army civilian slot.

U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper, Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy, Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley and Army Vice Chief of Staff James McConville hold a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on July 13, 2018.
U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper, Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy, Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley and Army Vice Chief of Staff James McConville hold a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on July 13, 2018. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Capping off a turbulent week at the Pentagon, U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday announced his intent to formally nominate Army Secretary Mark Esper to replace James Mattis as his permanent secretary of defense and promote Ryan McCarthy, a former Army ranger, to the top Army slot.

Sending the nomination formally to the Senate will likely take another week or two, according to an administration official. But the White House is moving with a sense of urgency to fill the top job at the Pentagon as a crisis in the Middle East threatens to bubble over into all-out conflict.

Trump also formally nominated David Norquist, the Pentagon’s comptroller, to be deputy defense secretary.

Esper is a distinguished Army veteran and former defense industry lobbyist who experts predict will sail through the confirmation process. Those who know him also point to his deep ties to Trump’s existing national security team: He has known National Security Advisor John Bolton since their days in the George W. Bush administration and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo since they were classmates at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“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.”

Esper also knows David Urban, a political operative who helped advise Trump’s 2016 campaign in Pennsylvania, and as Army secretary for the last two years worked closely with Trump’s nominee to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley.

Experts say Esper’s rapport with Pompeo, Bolton, and Milley in particular will help him navigate a volatile administration, where relationships can make or break careers.

“He’s pretty well armed for the job,” said Mark Jacobson, a former public servant who held senior positions in the Pentagon and Congress.

As Esper moves to take the top Pentagon job, McCarthy, a former Army ranger and defense industry veteran, is well positioned to take his place.

As the Army’s top civilian, McCarthy is expected to continue Esper’s push to prepare the service for potential conflict with a near-peer adversary, such as Russia or China. The two, along with Milley, have worked closely to slash underperforming programs and push the service to develop modern weapons systems more quickly, as well as pivot to focus on where the Army can do more in the Asia-Pacific.

“We’ve been very consistent about where we were trying to take the Army,” McCarthy said earlier this year. “With that comes very difficult choices.”

During his time in the Army, McCarthy led a platoon with the elite 75th Ranger Regiment in the opening days of the Afghanistan War. After leaving the service, he worked on Capitol Hill as a professional staff member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

McCarthy also did a previous stint in the Pentagon, working under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He served as special assistant for former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from 2006 to 2011.

Like Esper, who worked as as vice president of government relations at Raytheon, McCarthy also has experience in the defense industry. He joined Lockheed Martin in 2011, where he worked on the controversial F-35 fighter jet.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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