President Donald Trump announced on June 21 that he intends to formally nominate Army Secretary Mark Esper as the next secretary of defense.
Along with Esper, the president also announced that current Deputy Secretary of Defense David L. Norquist will remain in his position, while Ryan D. McCarthy will replace Esper as the next army secretary.
Under federal law (pdf), after Trump puts in a nomination for Esper, he will be barred from acting as the head of the department while he prepares for his Senate confirmation.
Several senators have already shown their support for Esper such as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who released a statement after Trump announced Esper as acting secretary of defense.
“President Trump has made a good decision in having Secretary Esper serve as acting secretary of defense. Secretary Esper has a long history of dedicated service to this nation, and he has shown excellent judgment in his current position, which I expect will continue as he assumes the role of acting secretary of defense,” Inhofe said in a statement on June 18.
In a separate statement, Inhofe said, “I’ve been in the field with him to see how he does with troops, and he’s exceptionally good,” reported Defense News.
Esper began his career as an Infantry Officer in the 101st Airborne Division while serving in the first Gulf War. He then served in Europe and in the National Guard, before retiring from the Army after 21 years of service, according to the White House.
Prior to serving as the army secretary, he was Vice President for Government Relations at the Raytheon Company.
“Esper also has extensive experience working on Capitol Hill. He served as National Security Adviser for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist; Policy Director for the House Armed Services Committee; and as a Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations and Government Affairs Committees where he was responsible for national security issues. Esper also served as the Legislative Director and Senior Policy Advisor to Senator Chuck Hagel,” according to his biography on the Department of Defense website.
“His Pentagon experience includes serving as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Negotiations Policy) in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and earlier on the Army staff as a war planner. Esper was also a Chief of Staff of the Heritage Foundation, and taught at Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies program in Fairfax, Virginia.”
Esper is also a graduate of the United States Military Academy, Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, and George Washington University.
In an interview in April, Esper told Reuters that he believes Washington was late to recognize that America will be locked in “a strategic competition with China” for years to come.
He said that he had focused on Beijing’s growing military might for a long time, even before the Pentagon rolled out a National Defense Strategy in 2018 that prioritized competition with China and Russia over counter-insurgencies in places like Afghanistan.
China has been a personal priority for Esper as far back as the 1990s, including when he worked as an aide on Capitol Hill after more than a decade in the Army.
“The issue of China, competition with China, China’s capabilities, is not a new one to me … That is both the foundation and the shaping of my views on these various issues, because I’ve watched this evolution for 20 years now,” he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.