President Trump’s decision to slow-walk the installation of a permanent defense secretary, coupled with an obscure federal staffing law, has left the Pentagon poised to get its fourth leader in just the past six months — all while military tensions between the U.S. and Iran remain at a boiling point and a massive defense policy bill is making its way through Congress.
Acting Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who took over two weeks ago and has been nominated for the permanent post, will soon have to relinquish the position. Federal law bars nominees from serving in an acting capacity as they go through the Senate confirmation process.
The latest shake-up likely will leave Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer, who spent the better part of the past three decades in the private finance sector, running day-to-day operations for the world’s largest military for at least a few weeks. Mr. Spencer would follow Mr. Esper, former Boeing executive Patrick M. Shanahan and retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as heads of the Pentagon in the Trump administration just since the end of December.
Lawmakers and other Capitol Hill sources are deeply frustrated by such instability, and analysts say the White House could have avoided the chaos easily by picking a permanent replacement soon after Mr. Mattis’ resignation in December. Instead, the next defense chief will come on board just as the 2020 election season heats up, leaving little time to push new policies or make substantive changes inside the Pentagon, analysts and military observers say.
“What it means in terms of civilian planning and management — they will grind to a halt,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a retired Marine Corps colonel.
“You’re not going to see any major initiatives either coming out or moving ahead until you get some stable leadership,” he said. “Even then, by the time they get on board, they’ll have one year, a little more, until the election. Basically, this is it for management change, strategy change in the Department of Defense.”
Some of Mr. Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill concede that the president’s strategy of keeping acting officials in place for months damages the government’s credibility, particularly at a top Cabinet post such as defense secretary.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, long has argued that acting defense chiefs simply don’t carry the same policy heft on the international stage and lack the authority that comes with a permanent, Senate-confirmed secretary who speaks unmistakably for the president.
Mr. Inhofe told The Washington Times that he believes Mr. Esper — who served as Army secretary and as an executive at Raytheon and held a variety of roles on Capitol Hill — is likely to be confirmed easily, perhaps as soon as next month.
“Everyone knows him, and that makes it a lot easier. So I’m anticipating the very minimum time that is required that we’ll get that done,” he said. “We’re on the road to getting it done.”
Legal and military analysts say it’s crucial that Mr. Inhofe and his Senate colleagues move as quickly as possible.
“If confirmation gets delayed, it would send all the wrong messages not just internally to DoD and the troops, but also to the wider world as well,” said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Dunlap, now the executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University. “We especially need to avoid giving any adversaries the notion there is a leadership vacuum to exploit.”
But there is no avoiding even more turmoil in the next few weeks. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 says a person cannot serve as an acting secretary while undergoing confirmation for the permanent post.
The law would not have applied to Mr. Shanahan, officials say, because he had already been confirmed by the Senate and was serving as deputy defense secretary. The act states that the first deputy would not have to temporarily resign the post. In June, shortly after Mr. Trump finally said he planned to nominate Mr. Shanahan permanently for the post, Mr. Shanahan withdrew, citing personal family matters.
When Mr. Esper temporarily resigns, Mr. Spencer likely will take over on an interim basis. A Connecticut native and a Marine Corps veteran, Mr. Spencer left active military duty in 1981 and went to work in the private finance sector.
He will thus join a line of historical heavyweights who have held the top job at the Pentagon, including George Marshall, Robert McNamara, Dick Cheney and Robert Gates.
Mr. Spencer spent 16 years on Wall Street before becoming managing director of Fall Creek Management, a Wyoming investment firm, in 2007, according to his official Navy biography. He spent 10 years at the company before he was sworn in as Navy secretary in August 2017.
Mr. Spencer has kept a relatively low profile over the past 18 months. In June, however, he issued a pointed reminder against political expression to Navy personnel, echoing a warning Mr. Shanahan had issued before his unexpected exit.
Mr. Spencer released the memo after U.S. sailors were photographed sporting patches that read “Make Aircrew Great Again” with a likeness of President Trump, and after some Navy personnel courted controversy by discussing with the White House plans to hide the USS John S. McCain from the president’s view in May.
“Now that election season is approaching, it is appropriate for us to remember that, as military professionals, we are an apolitical body and our members cannot participate in activities that could appear to imply sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign or cause,” the secretary wrote in the June 19 memo.
Meanwhile, Mr. Esper has tried to project power on the world stage. He traveled to Brussels this week for a key meeting of NATO defense ministers and has fielded questions about growing tensions between the U.S. and Iran.
The Trump administration has been prodding Germany, France and other NATO member governments to follow Washington’s lead and reimpose harsh economic sanctions on Iran, and Mr. Esper has been the point man in negotiations with his foreign counterparts.
He also has had to reassure allies that the uncertainty at the top of the Pentagon does not mean American policy priorities have changed.
“I made clear to the team that I did want to come to NATO and meet with my fellow defense ministers to convey some key points to them,” he told reporters last week. “One is that this transition is simply a change in leadership. It’s not a change in mission, it’s not a change in priorities and it’s not a change in the United States’ commitment to NATO.”
• Moss Brennan contributed to this report.
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