Written by Thomas Gibbons-Neff
Mark T. Esper is a 1986 graduate of West Point, where his classmates included Mike Pompeo, now the secretary of state. He was an Army infantryman who fought in the Gulf War. He went on to work for a conservative think tank, then as a lobbyist for one of the nation’s largest military contractors.
And Tuesday he was abruptly elevated from his job as Army secretary to be acting defense secretary, becoming the third person to lead the Pentagon under President Donald Trump.
Esper, 55, was catapulted into the role after Patrick Shanahan stepped down as acting secretary amid revelations about domestic abuse charges in his family and questions about whether he could be confirmed. Trump did not say whether he intended to nominate Esper to the role permanently, but in remarks to reporters Monday, he seemed to give him strong backing.
“Mark Esper is going to be outstanding, and we look forward to working with him for a long period of time to come,” Trump said, calling him “a highly respected gentleman with a great career — West Point, Harvard, a tremendous talent.”
He is taking over at a time of heightened tensions with Iran, questions about the role of the U.S. military on the southwestern border and debate over national security strategy.
After graduating from West Point, Esper served in the Army, the Army Reserve and National Guard in some capacity for more than two decades. He went on to the conservative Heritage Foundation and a series of jobs on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon. Esper ended up at Raytheon, a major military contractor, as the vice president for government relations in 2010.
Shanahan’s 30-year career at Boeing, the nation’s largest aerospace company, complicated his nomination, and Esper’s tenure as Raytheon’s top lobbyist could leave him facing a similar issue.
In his 2017 confirmation hearing, Esper said he “spent an overwhelming majority of my time on the business-end of the company,” but he was personally involved on several Raytheon contracts, including the radar of the Patriot surface-to-air-missile system, a key piece of hardware used extensively by the U.S. military and its allies, including Saudi Arabia and South Korea.
Despite the potential ethical issues, top Republican lawmakers quickly championed Esper’s appointment.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Esper and said he believed that he was the most likely choice to be nominated.
“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,” Inhofe said. “He does an exceptionally good job.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., echoed Inhofe, saying he was a good choice, “knows him well” and could vote for him as a permanent secretary of defense “without equivocation.”
Esper will take responsibility of one of the largest militaries in the world as the Trump administration navigates how it will confront Iran, end the war in Afghanistan and negotiate with Turkey as the longtime ally of the NATO moves to buy a controversial missile system from Russia.
And Monday, the Pentagon said it was sending 1,000 more troops to the Middle East to bolster security for U.S. forces in the region after the White House accused Iran of attacking two tankers in the Gulf of Oman last week.
According to a defense official, Esper’s office was caught off guard by Trump’s decision to pick him as acting defense secretary. He received a phone call from the White House only hours before Trump tweeted that Shanahan was resigning.
As Army secretary, Esper has pushed to modernize the Army with goals much in line with the National Defense Strategy announced last year under the defense secretary at the time, Jim Mattis.
In the Army’s 2020 proposed budget, Esper moved to cut legacy programs such as the CH-47 Chinook helicopter and the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, two mainstays in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in a move to better align the Army to fight in great power conflicts with countries like Russia and China.