Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s numbers in presidential polling have been on the up and up since a solid debate performance last month. But on Tuesday morning, her attention was locked in on Mark Esper and his confirmation hearing to be Donald Trump’s pick to head the Department of Defense.
Esper, the current secretary of the Army, is a former top lobbyist for Raytheon, and a former staffer at both the right-wing Heritage Foundation and for Senate Republicans, including onetime Obama Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Warren pressed him on potential ethics conflicts involving his former employer.
Warren grew frustrated by Esper’s refusal to commit to recusing himself from decisions involving Raytheon for the rest of his time in government—especially since his predecessor, former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, committed to recusing himself from involvement with his former employer, Boeing. (Shanahan withdrew from permanent consideration for the post after an alleged domestic violence incident.)
According to Esper, Pentagon ethics officials recommended that he not commit to a recusal, but Warren wasn’t satisfied. “You are unwilling to make the same commitment [as Shanahan]?” Warren pressed, before finally saying: “I’ll take that as a no.”
Warren also zeroed in a memo Esper apparently wrote detailing an exemption he could receive to participate in matters related to Raytheon’s financial interests if it’s “so important it cannot be referred to another official.” (As Warren noted, Esper’s deal to leave Raytheon stipulates that he’s due to receive $1 million in deferred compensation after 2022.)
“This smacks of corruption, plain and simple,” Warren told Esper, before asking Esper if he would commit to not seeking the waiver. After a short exchange, Esper said he thought it was a “good debate,” to which Warren shot back, “I’m not trying to have a debate, I want to know if you’ll agree not to seek such a waiver.”
Warren ended with this:
So let me get this straight. You’re still due to get at least a million dollar payout from when you lobbied for Raytheon, you still won’t recuse yourself from Raytheon’s decisions, you won’t commit to recuse yourself from Raytheon’s decision[s], you insist on being free to seek a waiver that would let you to make decisions affecting Raytheon’s bottom line and your remaining financial interests, and you won’t rule out taking a trip back through the revolving door...Secretary Esper, the American people deserve to know that you’re making decisions in our country’s best security interests, not your own financial interests. You can’t make those commitments to those committee, that means you should not be confirmed as Secretary of Defense.
There were more fireworks to come, though, because Armed Services Committee chair James Inhofe cut in to prevent Warren from talking further. Clearly fuming, she said the situation was “outrageous” and shoved her microphone out of her way. Inhofe then apologized to Esper for the grilling.
Warren’s critique gets to the heart of what’s wrong with the Trump administration and Washington in general: the revolving door between government and business, and how it’s considered a perfectly normal part of the way business is done in the capitol.
With that said, given the GOP’s majority in the Senate, it’s difficult to see Esper’s confirmation not happening unless another scandal comes to light. Love to drain that swamp.