WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee today expressed “profound frustration” with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper over a “unacceptable” lack of response to a request that Esper appear before the committee.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., also indicated that the White House may be directing Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not to respond to the request from the Democratically-controlled House, while the Pentagon pushed back at his criticisms.
“It is unacceptable that, except for staff communication, you have not responded to our formal written request that you and Chairman Milley appear before the committee for a hearing on the Department’s roles and authorities in civilian law enforcement,” Smith wrote in a publicly released letter. “We understand that the White House may be preventing you from testifying, obstructing Congress’ ability to conduct its constitutionally charged oversight responsibility.
“Therefore, I ask that you coordinate with the committee to provide your and Chairman Milley’s availability no later than June 11, 2020, so that we can schedule a hearing. Without your cooperation, the committee will be forced to set a hearing date and time without your input.”
The letter comes several days after Smith said Esper and Milley had declined to appear before the committee, something the Pentagon has denied, saying the issue is one of scheduling.
In a statement, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Rath Hoffman said the department would be “responding by letter today to this latest correspondence,” but pushed back on Smith’s comments, saying that HASC staff "is also well aware that we have been working on finding a mutually available date to testify soon.”
“I would point out that most — if not all — of the questions in the chairman’s previous letter were answered during a member briefing on Monday with Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy and [Maj. Gen.] William Walker of the D.C. National Guard,” Hoffman wrote. “This briefing was open to all members of the committee and was led by Chairman Smith. HASC staff are fully aware that they had received a commitment from DoD to provide those same answers in writing with additional details by COB today.”
In the latest missive, which was released as Esper was spotted meeting with key defense senators on the Hill, Smith also hit Esper for not responding to a list of questions regarding the events of June 1, when Esper and Milley were among aides who accompanied Trump just after peaceful demonstrators were gassed in front of the White House. After the protesters were cleared, Trump posed for a photograph with a Bible in front of nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church, which was damaged by fire amid protests the night before.
That event, which included Trump threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act and use active duty military forces against protesters around the country, both exploded concerns about the role of the military and several days later led to speculation that Esper was about to lose his job.
Smith’s note is the latest in a series of criticisms of Esper from Democrats in Congress, an unusual situation for the defense committees that often have a solid, bipartisan working relationship with military officials.