WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to confirm Mark T. Esper as defense secretary, ending a months-long vacancy created when Jim Mattis resigned last year over policy disagreements with President Donald Trump.
The vote reflected broad bipartisan support for Esper — who has spent most of his career in the military and in government — at a time when the country is confronting disparate national security threats and contemplating military engagement with Iran.
Many also see Esper’s confirmation as an important step toward restoring authority at a Pentagon that is increasingly at odds with Trump’s inner circle of White House advisers.
U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, supported Esper’s confirmation, saying Tuesday that he found Esper to be “serious” and a “thoughtful leader.”
“We live in a complex and dangerous world, and the threats we face grow more serious by the day. Americans deserve to have steady leadership guiding the Department of Defense and focusing on ensuring our national security,” King said, adding he believes Esper “will not hesitate to offer the President his best advice — even if the President disagrees with the assessment.”
Esper, 55, who has been serving as Army secretary since late 2017, previously worked on Capitol Hill as a senior Republican staffer, in top positions at the Pentagon and at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He also served for over a decade in the Army, when he participated in the Gulf War.
The only significant challenge to his bid to become Pentagon chief arose from his stint as a lobbyist for Raytheon, a major defense contractor, and his resistance to extending a two-year commitment he made as Army secretary to recuse himself from decisions involving the company.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential hopeful, grilled Esper about his decision during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, arguing that if he would not commit to better distance himself from Raytheon, “you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense.”
Esper and many Republicans charged that Warren was unfairly pillorying him as potentially corrupt solely because of his corporate credentials.
It has been just over one month since Trump nominated Esper to lead the Pentagon, and less than one week since he made his case for the job to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The speed of his confirmation stands in stark contrast to the months that Patrick Shanahan’s bid for the job languished in limbo, until it ended last month amid revelations of turmoil in his family.