Last Wednesday, it was reported that Donald Trump was moving to nominate Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper for secretary of the Army. Raytheon is one of the “big five” defense contractors, and the president’s decision comes at a time when concerns are being raised over the idea of defense industry executives being placed in senior positions at the Pentagon.
Esper, who holds a master’s degree from Harvard and a doctorate from George Washington University, has been Raytheon’s vice president of government relations since 2010. Before that, he held a slew of positions in both the public and private sectors. His resume is extensive, but The Hill managed to succinctly package the high points:
“Esper graduated from West Point in 1986 and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. His Army career includes a combat tour in Iraq during the Gulf War.
“His Capitol Hill experience includes serving as director of national security affairs for then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). He was also policy director for the House Armed Services Committee and a senior professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
“From 2002 to 2004, he was the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for negotiations policy. In that role, he was responsible for arms control, nonproliferation, international agreements and matters with the United Nations.
“Esper’s resume also includes serving as national policy director for Fred Thompson’s 2008 presidential campaign and as chief of staff at conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation.”
The Washington Examiner, which broke the news in an exclusive after speaking with unnamed D.C. sources, reported that Pentagon officials “privately expressed confidence that Esper, with his military, Pentagon and Capitol Hill experience, will win quick Senate confirmation.”
That would be a change of pace. Esper’s nomination is Trump’s third attempt to fill the position of Army secretary.
A ROCKY ROAD
Trump’s first choice, New York billionaire and owner of the Florida Panthers hockey team, Vincent Viola, withdrew back in February over concerns about financial conflicts of interest. Like Esper, Viola is a West Point graduate, and he served as an officer with the Army Rangers for years before retirement.
The president’s second pick was Tennessee state senator Mark Green, a West Point grad and retired Army flight surgeon. Green withdrew in May after controversial comments he made in the past about the LGBT community and Muslims came back to haunt him.
In a statement, Green said his words had been “mischaracterized” but that he had to withdraw, expressing his belief that it’s “critical to give the president the ability to move forward with his vision to restore our military to its rightful place in the world” without distractions.
Assuming Mark Esper hangs in there and keeps his name in the running for Army secretary, he’ll need to pass vetting by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). That hearing isn’t expected to take place until September. But it was within that committee, back in June, that SASC chairman John McCain first voiced concern over members of the defense industry taking key positions at the Pentagon.
THE CHAIRMAN MAKES NOISE
In a hearing Defense News called “surprisingly contentious,” McCain threatened to block the SASC confirmation of Patrick Shanahan for deputy defense secretary, the number two spot at the Pentagon below defense secretary James Mattis. One of the reasons, the Arizona senator made clear, was Shanahan’s ties to industry contractors.
Shanahan had been with Boeing since 1986 before accepting Trump’s nomination. He was a member of the Boeing Executive Council and had even earned the nickname “Mr. Fix-it” within the corporation for his ability to turn around troubled projects.
At the hearing, McCain cited Shanahan’s industry past, saying he was “not overjoyed” that the would-be deputy secretary spent so much time at one of the big five defense contractors. He also said Shanahan’s ilk serving at the Pentagon was “not what our Founding Fathers had in mind.”
McCain, a Republican, went further weeks later, bluntly stating in a hallway interview in Congress that he “did not want people from the top five corporations” to fill positions at the Pentagon. Party politics aside, at least some lawmakers across the aisle appear to share his concern.
Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat who sits on the SASC, told Defense News in early July that “real concern about the concentration of these people” exists because decision-making processes may be “influenced by [their] prior employment.”
Similarly, Senator Richard Durbin, another Democrat, said the Trump administration has “turned a blind eye to the whole question of conflicts of interest from start to finish.”
Despite such criticisms, the SASC gave Shanahan the green light, and the Senate officially confirmed him last Tuesday. This means that right now, the two most powerful men at the Pentagon have significant past connections to the defense industry.
For those unaware, for years Secretary of Defense James Mattis was a board member of one of the big five contractors, General Dynamics, and up until the point of his nomination had nearly $600,000 in vested stock options with the corporation, according to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings.
In a convenient bit of timing, John McCain was absent at Shanahan’s full Senate confirmation on July 18, as he was recovering from surgery to remove a blood clot, which ultimately revealed a brain tumor. The same could be said for Ellen Lord, who went through SASC vetting relatively unscathed on the very same day and now awaits the committee’s nod to move on to a full Senate vote.
Lord has been CEO of Textron Systems, a global aerospace and defense conglomerate, since 2012. As with what happened to Shanahan, Lord likely would have faced a harsh grilling from McCain. Commenting on Lord’s smooth sail through her SASC hearing, Defense News wrote:
“That may have been due to the absence of Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs SASC. McCain, recuperating at home from a recent surgery, previously told Defense News he is concerned about the number of defense industry figures entering key Pentagon roles.”
The same good fortune was bestowed upon a former Lockheed Martin vice president on Thursday. Ryan McCarthy passed his SASC vetting for undersecretary of the Army, and if the Senate eventually confirms both him and Mark Esper, it would mean the top two Army positions at the Pentagon would be filled by defense industry executives.
It was speculated that former Lockheed Martin attorney David Ehrhart would come under heavy scrutiny at his SASC hearing for Air Force General Counsel, the department’s chief legal officer. The same would have surely gone for John Rood, Trump’s expected pick for undersecretary of defense for policy and current head of international sales at Lockheed.
But with the SASC confirming defense industry figures in McCain’s absence, it now appears the Arizona senator’s leeriness was the only substantive thing holding up the show.
DOWN A DARK PATH
Like Senator Richard Durbin and others in Congress who don’t like the emerging trend under Donald Trump, most in the mainstream media will only go so far as to highlight the myriad conflicts of interest between the Trump administration and the corporate world.
Right now, for example, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is catching fire for being the CEO of ExxonMobil when it violated sanctions on Russia back in 2014. The U.S. Treasury Department just hit Exxon with a $2 million fine for that move, and Exxon promptly filed a lawsuit against the government in response.
There are some, however, like Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder, who are willing to follow the logic to its inevitable conclusion. In a July 15 piece for The Guardian titled “Trump is ushering in a dark new conservatism,” Snyder pointed to far greater — and far more dangerous — implications for the United States.
Breaking down how, due to ignorance and passivity, the conservative government of Germany essentially handed control over to a populist leader in the 1930s, Snyder observed that this is exactly what’s happening within the Republican Party right now. In his closing, the history professor noted the urgency with which the matter should be addressed:
“One of the reasons why the radical right was able to overcome conservatives back in the 1930s was that the conservatives did not understand the threat. Nazis in Germany, like fascists in Italy and Romania, did have popular support, but they would not have been able to change regimes without the connivance or the passivity of conservatives.
“The last time around, the old right chose suicide by midwifery, and it seems to be doing so again. If Republicans do not wish to be remembered (and forgotten) like the German conservatives of the 1930s, they had better find their courage — and their conservatism — fast.”
To be clear, Snyder appeared to be talking about the rise of the American Fascist State.
THE SHAKE UPS BEGIN
Everyone understood very clearly that it would be more of the same under Hillary Clinton had she been elected president. The military campaigns, the arms sales, and the progressive domestic policies would have continued in Barack Obama’s footsteps.
A Trump presidency was the unknown variable. No one could really predict what might happen if The Donald actually made it to the Oval Office, though the quickness and vehemence with which he was labeled a fascist during the 2016 campaign speaks to a considerable body of individuals who sensed and were concerned over his far-right leanings.
Now that he’s in the White House, it’s abundantly apparent that those concerns were justified. In his short time in office, Donald Trump has demonstrated his intention to run his government with his own people and in his own way. And his way — as with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany — means a restructuring of the government.
For more on this, we can again turn to Rex Tillerson, whose past as a CEO at an oil conglomerate and current position as head of the U.S. State Department make him ideal for highlighting the rapidly developing synergy between government and the corporate world.
Back in May, Tillerson revealed plans for a restructuring of the U.S. State Department. Since then he’s chosen the point man he wants to lead that effort, and as of July 17, has even hired two consulting firms to assist in the process.
Reporting on the story on July 5, Politico wrote that Tillerson is “widely viewed within his department as isolated from and dismissive of career staff” and “considered unapproachable and largely isolated except for a few political appointees who tightly restrict access to him.”
Politico noted that it’s the “career staff,” staff that was already in place at the State Department when Tillerson took over, who feel unappreciated. And with Donald Trump looking to cut the State Department’s budget by 30 percent — estimates suggest this would require the elimination of around 2,300 positions — it’s not hard to imagine the types likely to get canned when Tillerson starts handing out pink slips.
A CHOICE PRESENTED
In an opinion piece back in February, I wrote the following:
“People call Donald Trump Hitler without really considering the words. They just know Hitler was a bad guy and, to them, so is Donald Trump. Few know how he came to power. Few truly understand how he rose to that position.
“Well, look around, folks. Here’s how it happened.”
Ignorance and passivity, as Timothy Snyder noted for The Guardian. Either willingly or unwillingly turning a blind eye to what’s happening around you. This goes not for those in the political arena alone, but for everyone. After all, Nazi Germany couldn’t have happened if the masses hadn’t given in to it.
Americans find themselves at that stage now. It cuts to the very heart of awareness and an awakening to reality. The American Fascist State is rising under the Trump administration. That’s a reality the American people need to start recognizing.
Through either ignorance, indifference, or fear, Republicans have failed to step up and challenge Trump’s push toward the far-right, and the Democrats, still sore over losing last year’s elections, appear content to just keep blathering on about Russian collusion. That puts the onus on you and me.
The internet has given us an advantage over Germans of the 1930s. An interconnected world provides little cover for those with agendas. And if we do have the ability to bear witness to the new system being created long before it’s established and humming along, then that means we also have the ability — and the time — to do something about it.