New Acting Defense Secretary

Jun 19, 2019
Originally published on June 19, 2019 6:30 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There was Jim Mattis, President Trump's first secretary of defense, then Patrick Shanahan as his acting replacement. Now, Mark Esper - the president has tapped Esper to be the new acting defense secretary after Shanahan abruptly stepped down, dropped out of the running for the top job at the DOD on Tuesday. Shanahan's resignation came after domestic violence incidents involving his son and ex-wife became public. In an interview with The Washington Post, he said, quote, "bad things can happen to good families, and this is a tragedy" - so now a third secretary of defense for President Trump.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mark Esper is a highly respected gentleman with a great career - West Point, Harvard; a tremendous talent.

MARTIN: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us now to help us learn more about the man who will take over at the Department of Defense.

Tom, what do we know about Mark Esper?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, unlike Shanahan, Rachel, he - Esper, does have a lot of military in Washington experience. He's a 1986 West Point graduate - interestingly, the same class as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Esper served in the first Gulf War with the 101st Airborne and later worked for years on Capitol Hill for both the Senate and the House, and also for defense contractor Raytheon. And in his time as Army secretary, he's been really focusing on the future needs of the Army, like long-range artillery, electronic warfare, cyber.

And I went on a visit with him to Fort Bragg, N.C., earlier this year because there was - remember - complaints about moldy housing and decrepit housing. And he talked to families down there - military families at Fort Bragg. And he apologized for it. And he said, listen. We have to fix this for the entire organization. The Army has to stay on top of it.

MARTIN: Yeah, so Patrick Shanahan faced a lot of criticism for his background as a former Boeing executive, that there would be kind of ethics concerns, conflicts of interest. Are there concerns surrounding Esper's work with Raytheon, which is a major military contractor?

BOWMAN: Well, there will likely be some concern. You know, he worked for government relations for Raytheon, basically lobbying on Capitol Hill. But as I say, he has a lot of experience across the board not just with Raytheon. Remember. Shanahan really spent his entire adult life at Boeing, so he was really seen as a Boeing guy. I don't think that's the same with Esper. You know, he worked for Raytheon for a time. He also worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Heritage Foundation, the think tank. So I don't think, again, he is tied to corporate America as much as we saw with Shanahan.

MARTIN: So earlier in the show, we heard from the top Iran adviser at the State Department, Brian Hook. And we were talking about Iran. He told us - Mr. Hook - that the pressure on Iran is working to diffuse any possibility of U.S. military action. But this is clearly going to be the priority when Esper takes the reins, right?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. This is the big deal now. I mean, they just sent another thousand troops over to the Middle East, defensive in nature, intelligence, surveillance and radar. Also, security personnel and engineers. So, yeah, this will be something to watch, clearly. But, you know, Esper really hasn't been dealing with any of these issues. He's been focusing on the Army. And what I do know is the Pentagon has been trying to tamp down any talk of military action against Iran, so we'll see how he handles this.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Tom Bowman for us this morning.

Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.