For the second week in a row, a lifetime public servant tapped for one of the Pentagon’s top jobs declared he would sooner resign from the job than follow an order he finds “illegal, immoral or unethical,” at a time when lawmakers are concerned that President Trump’s foreign policy moves are a threat to national security.

In a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., asked Army Secretary Mark Esper: Should he be confirmed as the next secretary of defense, would he align his foreign policy views more closely with former Defense Secretary James Mattis or President Trump ― as a rift between the two ultimately led to Mattis’s resignation late last year.

“I don’t know where to pick between the two,” Esper said. “But clearly, I share Secretary Mattis’s views, and I’ve expressed that publicly.”

While Army Secretary Mark Esper waits his confirmation to defense secretary, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer has stepped in as acting defense secretary. (Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith/DoD)
While Army Secretary Mark Esper waits his confirmation to defense secretary, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer has stepped in as acting defense secretary. (Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith/DoD)

The Pentagon has been without a full-fledged leader for more than seven months, since Mattis left the building citing disagreements over the importance of strong international alliances to U.S. national security.

“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” Mattis wrote in his resignation letter.

Esper doubled down on those sentiments during the hearing, also echoing a willingness to resign that was laid down last week by Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley in his own confirmation hearing to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I’m fully committed to that,” Esper said of a diplomatic world order led by the U.S. “I think that is the one thing that’s certainly under threat, from Russia, and certainly China. I see the big picture, if you will.”

After Mattis’s exit, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan stepped up into the acting role, and was nominated to replace him permanently. But that plan fell apart in late June, when Shanahan resigned after allegations of domestic abuse surfaced in documents from his 2011 divorce, and Esper spent three weeks as acting defense secretary in his place.

Committee chairman Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., had expressed a goal to hold a vote on Esper’s nomination Thursday, but that could be delayed to next week if any senators plan to vote against Esper.

“Most of us were very discouraged by the resignation of Secretary Mattis,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said. “And what we’ve hoped for is a successor who can show the same level of candor, and principle, and a willingness to remain independent even in the most challenging of circumstances.”

Lawmakers talked up Esper’s vast experience, from serving as an infantry officer on active duty, then in the National Guard and Army Reserve, as well as in national security at a D.C. think tank, as an executive at defense contractor Raytheon, at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

“If you are confirmed, you will help oversee national security policy for a president whose temperament and management skills are challenging, and likely very different from your own,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., told Esper. “While I may not agree with the president on many issues, I do want him to be surrounded by leaders who can give thoughtful advice and counsel.”

Esper leaned on the National Defense Strategy, the much-lauded, bipartisan policy put together under Mattis, in his response.

“The goal is to deter war, and this can only be done with a strong, modern, and ready military that has overmatch in all domains,” Esper said. “Our adversaries must see diplomacy as their best option because war with the United States will force them to bear enormous costs.”

But lawmakers also expressed concern about 14 top Pentagon jobs that are still without a confirmed official, including currently the secretary and deputy secretaries of defense.

“I’m concerned that the Defense Department may be adrift in a way I have not seen in my whole time on Capitol Hill," Reed said. “It is my hope that you will work with the White House to impress upon them the importance of filling these positions.”

Esper has a track record of rooting out waste, starting with dozens of hours spent combing through every Army program with Milley last summer. They adjusted some acquisitions and canceled others, adding up with $25 billion in savings.

And at the unit level, Esper released more than a dozen memos reducing non-mandatory training requirements and other administrative tasks for Army leaders in the field, after years of complaints about their burden on readiness ― up to and including the legendary weekend safety brief, and doing away with glowing PT unless soldiers were running on busy roads or at night.

“The bottom line is this: in an era of mounting fiscal challenges and competing demands, we must actively seek ways to free up time, money, and manpower to invest back into our top priorities,” he said.

And he answered for past actions as Army secretary ― like giving up $1 billion set aside for Army personnel funding to support President Trump’s border wall project.

“I think in many ways, it’s just one of those things we do — whether it’s putting out wildfires in California, helping with hurricane recovery in Texas or Puerto Rico, flooding along the Mississippi,” he said. “It’s one of those things we provide to other parts of the government, to the American people.”

But Reed fired back, asking Esper to recognize the distinction between providing manpower support and shuffling around funds ― funds that the Army had pleaded to Congress would be necessary to grow and support the Army.

Looking ahead, Esper shared some of the plans in the works to address aggression from Iran. That includes Operation Sentinel, he said, which has already been briefed to the Senate Armed Service Committee.

“Whereby we do passive patrolling, if you will, in the Strait of Hormuz, Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf, to deter any provocative acts by the Iranians or the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps].”

Lawmakers challenged Esper to a host of other commitments, including:

  • Addressing the toxic effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, formerly used in a firefighting foam on bases that has seeped into ground water around military installations.
  • The Fairness for Veterans Act, a 2017 initiative to streamline discharge upgrades for service members with a post-traumatic stress diagnosis that could have resulted in misconduct that got them separated from the military.
  • Reforming military housing, both in management and in physical condition. Esper began this effort as Army secretary, following widespread reports of dangerous and unhealthy conditions at on-base housing facilities, largely ignored by the private corporations who manage them.
  • Extending his recusal from working on deals with Raytheon, his former employer ― as he had during his time as Army secretary. Esper said that he intends to stay within legal and policy ethics regulations if working with Raytheon. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., expressed concerns about corruption involving his relationship with Raytheon, and the possibility that he would return to a defense industry job following his time at the Pentagon.
  • Sorting out what shape a Space Force, as a separate military service, will take.
  • Making efforts to protect active duty service members and their families from being deported, as well as ensuring transitioning service members know how to apply for citizenship as veterans, if they have not already started the process.

“It’s obvious from listening to both sides of the aisle here, from my colleagues Sen. Kaine and also Chairman Inhofe, that based on their direct observation and work with you, both of them think you’re an all-star. I tend to agree ..." Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., told Esper. " ... you’re going to need to be an all-star.”