Trump Nominates Esper to Be Defense Chief, Succeeding Mattis

July 16, 2019 Updated: July 16, 2019

WASHINGTON—President Donald Trump asked the Senate on July 15 to confirm Mark Esper as the successor to former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned in December 2018.

The moment the nomination was received by the Senate on July 15, Esper was required to step out of his role as acting defense secretary—a job he has held since June—until he is confirmed as the permanent secretary. He reverted to his previous position of Army secretary.

Esper took over as acting defense secretary in June, when Patrick Shanahan abruptly quit after having served as acting secretary since Mattis’s departure.

Filling in for Esper pending his confirmation is Richard Spencer, who has been the civilian leader of the Navy since August 2017. Thus Spencer, filling in for Esper as of July 15, is the third acting defense secretary this year.

Spencer’s tenure as acting secretary is expected to be brief. Esper will have his Senate confirmation hearing on July 16 and could be confirmed as early as July 18. Spencer would then return to the Navy.

As soon as he took the handoff from Esper, Spencer sent a brief letter to all military and civilian personnel of the Defense Department.

“While my time in this role is anticipated to be brief, I am fully prepared and committed to serve as acting Secretary of Defense, and I will provide continuity in the leadership of the department,” Spencer said.

He said U.S. allies and partners “can rest assured” that during this transition the Pentagon remains ready to meet its global commitments.

Spencer, a native of Connecticut, joined the Marine Corps after graduating from Rollins College in 1976. He served in the Marines until 1981 as an H-46 helicopter pilot, according to his official Navy biography.

He is a former Wall Street investment banker. For 10 years prior to becoming Navy secretary, he was managing director of Fall Creek Management, a private investment firm.

Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said although Spencer may hold the acting secretary job only briefly, he has the full authority and responsibility of the secretary of defense. Hoffman said David Norquist will continue as the acting deputy defense secretary, a role he has performed since Mattis’ departure.

If Esper is confirmed by the Senate this week, Norquist is expected to be nominated by Trump next week to be permanent deputy secretary.

When Mattis left, Shanahan moved up from deputy defense secretary, but Trump never nominated Shanahan for the top spot. Shanahan stepped down suddenly in June amid disclosures about past episodes of alleged domestic violence in his family.

There also is no Senate-confirmed deputy secretary of defense or civilian leader of the Air Force. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Paul Selva, is scheduled to retire July 31, and his nominated successor, Gen. John Hyten, has yet to be scheduled for a Senate confirmation hearing.

Esper, who has been the civilian leader of the Army since November 2017, has a wide range of experience with defense issues, including years on Capitol Hill. More recently, he was a lobbyist for Raytheon Co., which conducts business with the Pentagon.

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