WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren said on Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s nominee Mark Esper should not be confirmed as defense secretary because of ethical concerns related to his former job at defense contractor Raytheon Co.
“Secretary Esper, the American people deserve to know that you are making decisions in our country’s security interests, not in your own financial interests,” Warren, who is seeking her party’s 2020 presidential nomination, said during a tense exchange at Esper’s Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing.
“You can’t make those commitments to this committee. That means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense,” she said.
Esper, Trump’s Army secretary, spent seven years at Raytheon as vice president for government relations, which Warren said raised questions about potential conflicts of interest. Raytheon’s business is vast and weapons sales involving Raytheon can easily involve creep into policy discussions involving Esper.
One example is Turkey, where the United States has warned Ankara against buying a Russian air defense system – and instead is pushing it to buy America’s best alternative: Patriot missiles, made by Raytheon.
Esper called Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian system “disappointing.” He said he told Turkey’s defense minister: “You can either have the S-400 or you can have the F-35 (fighter jet), you cannot have both.”
Warren slammed Esper for failing to commit not to seek a waiver from his ethics agreement and cited concerns that he was due deferred payments from Raytheon of at least $1 million after 2022. She sought assurances that he would not immediately return to Raytheon or another defense firm after his job.
Warren asked Esper: “If confirmed will you commit not to work for or get paid by any defense contractor for at least four years after government service?
“No senator, I will not.”
The interaction with Warren was a rare moment of contention during what was otherwise a friendly hearing with a committee eager to get a confirmed secretary into the job nearly seven months after Jim Mattis announced his resignation from the job in December.
Warren’s accusations triggered apologies from some members of the committee.
“It was unfair and you handled it beautifully,” Senator James Inhofe, the committee’s Republican chairman, told Esper.
Republican Senator Rick Scott ridiculed Warren and dismissed her concerns, saying: “I think she just needed a moment for her presidential campaign.”
Other lawmakers at the Senate hearing noted that Esper also has deep national security bona fides, going back to his days at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated in 1986.
He served in the 1991 Gulf War as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division and later commanded an airborne rifle company in Europe, according to the Army’s website. Prior to becoming Army secretary, his Pentagon experience included serving as a deputy assistant secretary of defense.