WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry worries the young Trump administration's slow pace getting Pentagon jobs filled — and Obama administration holdovers at DoD— may hurt plans to boost defense spending.
In a press conference Thursday, Thornberry said new Defense Secretary James Mattis is "doing a great job, but so far he doesn't have anybody else in a Senate-confirmed position." Thornberry fears holdover DoD staff who resisted his alarms over military readiness problems won't change their stripes.
"The problem is it's Secretary Mattis alone right now," said Thornberry, R-Texas. "So you have a number of people, political appointees and others from the Obama administration, and they have been the ones trying to deny there's a problem. They're well intentioned people, patriotic Americans, but it's hard for any of us to turn 180 degrees in the other direction."
Three weeks into the Trump administration, roughly 75 percent of political appointee jobs inside the Defense Department were vacant, and there were 16 holdovers from the Obama administration, including Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work and the three acting secretaries of the military departments.
In a statement responding to Thornberry's remarks, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a DoD spokesman, said Work "plays an important role in working with the services to develop our budget inputs, and he does so in accordance with the guidance and direction of Secretary Mattis." Mattis has given Work his "full trust and confidence," Davis said.
"The budget submissions that DoD makes to the President will come from Secretary Mattis," Davis said in a statement. "They will reflect his thinking, and his priorities, which are to rebuild combat readiness of America's military, while being faithful stewards of every taxpayer dollar we spend on defense."
Since taking office just weeks ago, Mattis has had a full plate, traveling to Europe and Asia, working to bolster foreign alliances and facing fallout from a controversial counterterrorist raid in Yemen. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has met Senate Democrats' delay tactics on Cabinet appointees. The administration itself has been slow to vet and name mid-tier appointees, which leaves as Mattis the lone Senate-confirmed Trump appointee to the Pentagon.
"What I'm concerned about is this whole process," Thornberry said. "Because it's been slow to get people in place, it's going to be harder for the president to fulfill his promises."
Trump last month ordered the Pentagon and the Office of Management and Budget to develop — within 90 days — an emergency budget amendment to boost military spending this year, and for Mattis to update and revise existing budget plans for fiscal 2018. Mattis, in a memo afterward, said he plans to send a supplemental request to OMB by March 1.
Concerned a continuing resolution to fund the federal government that expires on April 28 will leave little time to tackle both 2017 and 2018 spending, lawmakers have since encouraged DoD to deliver the supplemental directly to Congress, Thornberry said.
A key campaign promise for Trump has been rebuilding the U.S. military. On Thursday, Trump renewed that pledge, saying "our country will never have had a military like the military we're about to build and rebuild."
"We have the greatest people on Earth in our military, but they don't have the right equipment and their equipment is old," Trump said. "I used it. I talked about it at every stop. Depleted, it's depleted. It won't be depleted for long. And I think one of the reason I'm standing here instead of other people is that, frankly, I talked about we have to have a strong military."
Trump's comments dovetail with Thornberry's calls to improve military readiness and come after the U.S. military's uniformed No. 2s testified last week that their personnel and aging equipment are stretched thin amid years of war, statutory budget caps and temporary workarounds.
"If you remember there was a real concerted effort to deny there was a readiness problem. You heard statistics and the testimony about how it has gotten worse," Thornberry said Thursday.
The HASC chairman also signaled he has not forgotten a 2016 leaked memo prepared for Work showing Pentagon leaders aimed to derail the Republican-led House's defense spending plans last year. The memo strategized against "Thornberry's readiness crisis narrative."
One of the memo's authors was Stephen Hedger, then assistant defense secretary for legislative affairs and now deputy chief of staff to the defense secretary. The other author, then-Pentagon Comptroller Michael McCord, was let go by the incoming Trump administration.
"Secretary Mattis cannot do it by himself, and meanwhile we have folks in the [Pentagon] who have been there through the whole time, fighting against us," Thornberry said. "And they're the ones coming up with the defense budget. So I'm concerned about where that's headed."
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.