Warren Hammers Trump’s Pentagon Nominee—Despite Her Own Industry Ties

The presidential contender is leading the charge against the Defense Department’s revolving door but has a history of pushing the interests of firms in her home state.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren arrives at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 1, 2018.
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren arrives at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 1, 2018. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In an explosive Senate exchange, Democratic presidential hopeful and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren blasted President Donald Trump’s nominee for defense secretary over the ex-Raytheon lobbyist’s ties to a defense giant that does billions of dollars a year in business with the U.S. Defense Department.

Warren is leading the charge against the revolving door between the Pentagon and the defense industry, introducing a sweeping bill in May that would prohibit major defense contractors from hiring former senior defense officials for four years after they leave government.

But left unsaid was the fact that Warren herself has pushed the interests of major defense contractors in her home state during her time in the Senate—including Raytheon. The firm is one of Massachusetts’s largest employers and brings in billions of dollars each year in federal contracts.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Warren rebuked Mark Esper, who is currently serving as Army secretary, for refusing to commit to recuse himself from all future decisions regarding his former employer or rule out returning to the company within four years after leaving government service. Esper’s current ethics agreement, which stipulates that he must recuse himself from any matters involving Raytheon for two years after his appointment as Army secretary, is set to expire in November.

“The American people deserve to know that you are making decisions in our country’s best security interest, not in your own financial interests,” Warren said as committee Chairman James Inhofe banged the gavel, rebuking the senator for going over her allotted time. “You can’t make those commitments to this committee—that means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense.”

Raytheon is currently the world’s third-largest defense contractor.  Most controversially, the company builds the precision-guided missiles used in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

The exchange stood in remarkable contrast to the rest of the hearing. Esper, a Gulf War veteran who served for years in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, faced few tough questions from either side of the aisle. Senator after senator thanked him for his service and expressed confidence that he would sail through to confirmation.

Lawmakers seem eager to confirm Esper quickly as the Pentagon enters its seventh straight month without a permanent leader. More than six months after Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned, the upper ranks of the department are in turmoil. Twenty of the top jobs are vacant or held by temporary or acting officials. Meanwhile, the department continues to field scandal after scandal: Trump’s first choice to replace Mattis withdrew his name from consideration after reports emerged of disturbing family disputes; the admiral set to take over the U.S. Navy’s top job instead resigned over his relationship with a former officer accused of sexual assault; and the general tapped to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is facing accusations of sexual misconduct.

But on Esper’s nomination, Warren could be the holdout. She has recently taken a stand against corporate lobbying influence at the Pentagon, voting against the administration’s proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the nominations of several key defense officials who spent time in the defense industry. Warren has also sharply criticized the administration’s support for the airstrikes in Yemen and refusing to hold the Saudis accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“As president, Elizabeth will continue fighting to end the intense coziness between defense contractors and the Pentagon,” said spokeswoman Saloni Sharma. “She doesn’t take PAC or federal lobbyist money, and she isn’t holding high-dollar fundraisers or doing call-time where people can buy access. She has a plan to end the influence of defense contractors so we can start making deep cuts to our bloated defense budget.”

Still, Warren’s ties to the defense industry—including another company with facilities in Massachusetts, General Dynamics—could come up during her presidential campaign. She reportedly made an effort to reach out to both companies during her 2012 Senate campaign and time in the Senate, including facility visits and at least one phone call to Raytheon’s chief executive. She also accepted more than $80,000 in donations from the defense industry from 2011 to 2018 and in her first year in the Senate fought to stop the Army from shifting funds away from a General Dynamics-built communications network that a government watchdog has dinged for cost overruns and performance deficiencies.

That did not stop Warren from laying into Esper during a contentious exchange in which she repeatedly interrupted him and spoke loudly over the chairman’s gavel. Warren slammed Esper for refusing to extend his recusal period—even though his predecessor as acting defense secretary, longtime Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, did so.

Esper has divested all of his stock in Raytheon, but his current ethics agreement allows him to continue to receive at least a million dollars in deferred compensation from Raytheon after 2022, Warren charged.

Although Esper is prohibited by law from participating in matters that would impact Raytheon’s bottom line, as secretary of defense he could seek a waiver from his ethics obligations if it is “so important that it cannot be referred to another official,” she said.

When pressed, Esper refused to say that he would not seek such a waiver.

“This smacks of corruption, plain and simple,” Warren said.

Warren also pressed Esper to pledge not to work for or accept payment from a defense contractor for at least four years after leaving government service. Warren’s legislation seeks to “block the revolving door between the Pentagon and giant contractors like Raytheon,” she said.

Esper refused.

“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,” Esper said. “I disagree with the presumption that for some reason anyone who comes from the business or the corporate world is corrupt.”

Inhofe cut Warren off, telling her she had gone two minutes over her time.

“This is outrageous,” Warren said.

Warren’s objections likely won’t be enough to block Esper’s confirmation but could slow the voting process for several days.

In an indication of the committee’s leanings, Inhofe apologized to Esper on Warren’s behalf after the exchange.

“It was unfair, and you handled it beautifully,” he said.

This story has been updated to include a statement from a Warren spokeswoman. 

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

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