Mark Thomas Esper (born April 26, 1964) is the current and 27th United States' secretary of defense. He previously served as acting secretary of defense and was the 23rd United States secretary of the Army from 2017 to 2019.
Before joining the Department of Defense, Esper was vice president of government relations at Raytheon, a major U.S. defense contractor. During his time at Raytheon, Esper was recognized as a top corporate lobbyist by The Hill in 2015 and 2016.
President Donald Trump announced on June 18, 2019, that Esper would become acting secretary of defense, succeeding acting secretary Patrick Shanahan. Before Shanahan withdrew his name from consideration for the position, Esper had been considered a leading candidate for the nomination, had the Senate declined to confirm Shanahan. Esper assumed the office of acting secretary on June 24, and was confirmed as 27th secretary of defense by the United States Senate with a vote of 90–8 on July 23, 2019.
Early life and education
Esper was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son of Pauline "Polly" (Reagan) and Thomas Joseph Esper. His father was a member of the Maronite Church. Esper graduated from Laurel Highlands High School outside Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1982. He received his Bachelor of Science in engineering from the United States Military Academy in 1986. Esper was a dean's list student at West Point and received the Douglas MacArthur Award for Leadership. He received a master's degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in 1995 and a doctorate in public policy from George Washington University in 2008.
Esper served as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division and deployed with the "Screaming Eagles" for the Persian Gulf War. His battalion was part of the famous "left hook" that led to the defeat of the Iraqi Army. For his actions, Esper was awarded a Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, and various service medals. He later led an Airborne Rifle Company in Europe and served as an Army fellow at the Pentagon. Esper served on active duty for more than ten years before moving to the Army National Guard and later the Army Reserve, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Esper is a recipient of the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service. Among his military awards and decorations are the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, and the Kuwait Liberation Medal.
Esper was chief of staff at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, from 1996 to 1998. From 1998 to 2002, Esper served as a senior professional staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. He was also a senior policy advisor and legislative director for U.S. senator Chuck Hagel. He was policy director for the House Armed Services Committee from 2001 to 2002. From 2002 to 2004, Esper served in the George W. Bush administration as deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy, where he was responsible for a broad range of nonproliferation, arms control, and international security issues. He was director for national security affairs for the U.S. Senate under Senate majority leader Bill Frist from 2004 to 2006.
Esper was executive vice president at the Aerospace Industries Association in 2006 and 2007. From September 2007 to February 2008, Esper served as national policy director to Senator Fred Thompson in his 2008 presidential campaign. From 2008 to 2010, Esper served as executive vice president of the Global Intellectual Property Center and vice president for Europe and Eurasia at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He was hired as vice president of government relations at defense contractor Raytheon in July 2010. Esper was recognized as a top corporate lobbyist by The Hill in 2015 and 2016.
President Trump announced his intention to nominate Esper as United States Secretary of the Army on June 19, 2017. He was Trump's third nominee for the position, following the withdrawals of Vincent Viola and Mark E. Green. He was confirmed to this post by an 89–6 vote of the U.S. Senate on November 15, 2017 and sworn in on November 20, 2017.
Secretary of Defense
Temporary appointment and nomination
President Trump announced his appointment of Esper as acting United States secretary of defense on June 18, 2019, after Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan decided to withdraw his nomination. Four days later, it was announced that Trump would nominate Esper to serve as secretary of defense in a permanent capacity. On July 15, 2019, the White House formally sent his nomination to the Senate. Following his formal nomination to the Senate by President Trump, Esper was replaced as Acting Defense Secretary by Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer, as the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 prevented Esper from serving as acting secretary while his nomination was formally under consideration. During that period, Esper reverted to his position as Secretary of the Army. The Senate Committee on Armed Services scheduled a hearing on the nomination for the next day. On July 22, 2019, the Senate voted 85–6 to invoke cloture on his nomination. On July 23, 2019, his nomination was confirmed by a vote of 90–8.
On February 15, 2018, then-Army Secretary Esper was asked by reporters whether soldiers had concerns about serving beside openly transgender individuals. He replied that "It really hasn't come up." After he was nominated to become Secretary of Defense, he said that being "transgender" is not an issue with him, stating that he has met several transgender servicemembers and was impressed with many of them. He supports Directive-type Memorandum-19-004, claiming it is not a "blanket ban" on transgender military service and said that he believes anyone who can meet the military standards without "special accommodations" and is worldwide deployable should be able to serve, including transgender individuals as long as they can adhere to cisgendered standards associated with their biological sex. He said people in the military with gender dysphoria would have their condition assessed and "in many cases", be offered waivers that would allow them to serve. He cited the United States Department of Defense's 2018 Report and Recommendations on Military Service by Transgender Persons, which claims that persons who have a history of gender dysphoria, who have undergone medical treatments for gender transition, or who are unable or unwilling to meet the military's standards associated with their biological sex, could hurt military readiness and effectiveness and should be evaluated to see whether they should be retained or expelled from service.
Esper has said that his operating positions as Secretary of Defense would be apolitical, in keeping with the National Defense Strategy formulated in 2018 by his predecessor Jim Mattis.
On November 24, 2019, during a dispute regarding whether Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher would be stripped of his Trident pin, Esper fired the United States Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer. The Department of Defense attributed the firing to Spencer privately proposing to the White House (without informing Esper, and contrary to Spencer's public position) an arrangement to let Gallagher retire while keeping his Trident pin. On November 25, Esper stated that Trump had ordered him to stop the Navy from conducting a peer review regarding Gallagher's right to wear the pin. Esper said he previously supported the peer review, but followed Trump's order. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump cited the Gallagher case as the primary reason for Esper's firing of Spencer, while offering a second reason: that "large cost overruns" had not been mitigated.