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New acting Pentagon chief has closer ties to Trump

Mark Esper, 55, served for a decade on active duty and in the 101st Airborne Division during the 1991 Persian Gulf War before joining the Army Reserve | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Army Secretary Mark Esper, who’s been tapped to be the new acting secretary of defense, is a former aerospace executive like the departing Pat Shanahan. But he’ll also come to the job with key supporters close to the president, and with deeper ties to the military.

Esper, who administration officials say was in the running for the top Pentagon post before President Donald Trump said he was choosing Shanahan in early May, has been an ally of the president’s on the controversial use of active-duty soldiers to beef up border security, including traveling with Trump to the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months.

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Unlike critics in both parties, Esper doesn’t worry that deploying thousands of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border will erode their preparednesss for combat, he told POLITICO last December. “I don’t see any need to assume there will be a degradation in readiness. And in many ways, they can build readiness, depending on the type of work they’re doing.”

Esper is a close ally of Trump pal David Urban, the political operative who helped advise the president’s 2016 campaign in Pennsylvania. The two, along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1986.

Esper’s military pedigree marks a major difference from Shanahan, a former career executive at Boeing who withdrew from consideration to be the permanent Pentagon boss on Tuesday and had an unusually rocky tenure amid growing reports that Trump had doubts in him.

Esper, 55, served for a decade on active duty and in the 101st Airborne Division during the 1991 Persian Gulf War before joining the Army Reserve. He also was as a national security aide to then-senator and future Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

“I’ve known him for a long time,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican member of the Armed Services Committee, told POLITICO, calling Esper an “excellent choice” should Trump nominate him for the post.

“[He’ll] be confirmable and I think a good leader,” added Graham, a former Air Force legal officer. “There are a lot of good choices for the president, but I’d put him high on the list.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who would lead any confirmation hearings for secretary of defense, also told POLITICO, “I think a lot of Mark Esper. I’ve been with him in the field and I’ve watched his style of working with the troops. He does really a very good job.”

Both Inhofe and Graham are leading supporters of the president’ in the Senate.

Pat Shanahan

Esper is also a close ally of Gen. Mark Milley, the rough and tumble Army chief of staff who has endeared himself to Trump and has been nominated to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to individuals who know both men.

“Milley and Esper form a powerful team and seem to largely see eye-to-eye on a variety of issues,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, predicting the partnership will be valuable for Esper.

Esper has departed from Trump, however, on the issue of a transgender troop ban, which Shanahan spearheaded as deputy defense secretary. Last year, Esper testified to Congress that he saw no problems with transgender troops currently serving in the ranks.

“We know who they are, and it is monitored very closely because we’re concerned about that and want to make sure that they are in fact treated with dignity and respect and have precisely zero reports of issues of cohesion, discipline, morale and all sorts of things,” he said at the time.

Opponents of the ban, which is slated to be voted on this week by the Democratic-controlled House, said they will be watching how Esper handles the controversial issue.

Patrick Shanahan

“It will be very interesting to see how Esper talks about the ban as acting secretary given these past comments.,” said Perry Sacks, a spokesperson for several attorneys who are defending transgender service members.

Before rejoining the Pentagon in late 2017, Esper was the top lobbyist for Raytheon, one of the five largest U.S. defense contractors, and he will undoubtedly face questions about his defense industry and lobbying ties if Trump nominates him.

During his confirmation hearing to be Army secretary, Esper fended off questions about potential conflicts of interest, telling skeptical senators that he directly lobbied only on a handful of Army programs, and resisted calls to extend his two-year recusal from Raytheon matters to his entire tenure as Army secretary.

“I think it will [be an issue] with Democrats, because Democrats are going to oppose him anyway,” Inhofe said. “But it hasn’t been a problem so far.”

As secretary of the Army, the soft-spoken Esper has made few waves. His flagship project has been establishing a four-star command to field new technology and doctrine for the service as it shifts focus from counterinsurgency to competition with China and Russia.

In public appearances, he’s often said the Army is at a similar crossroads as after the the Vietnam War, when the service rebuilt itself to face down the Soviets in Europe and fielded major new weapons systems. “There’s a renaissance underway in the United States Army,” Esper told POLITICO in the December interview.

Another of his pet issues has been the growing trend of new recruits whose parents also wore the uniform. “I am concerned that we are becoming increasingly isolated from the larger public because [the Army] is becoming a family business in many ways,” Esper said at a think tank event last year. “If you talk to any senior Army leaders, you’ll find one, if not all their children are in the Army. And so, the family business has taken over.”

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