WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has announced his intent to nominate Mark Esper for secretary of defense, David Norquist as deputy secretary of defense, and Ryan McCarthy as secretary of the Army.
The announcements, released Friday evening, came after a week which saw Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan withdraw his name from consideration for the SecDef role. Trump had announced his intent to nominate Shanahan in May.
The three nominations would lock the officials into positions that, come the start of next week, they will be fulfilling. Esper, currently the Army secretary, will take over as acting secretary of defense come Monday; McCarthy, the under secretary of the Army, will then become acting secretary for that service.
Norquist, the Pentagon’s comptroller, has been serving as deputy secretary of defense for the last six months while Shanahan was serving as acting secretary. His nomination has been expected for several weeks, but there were questions whether another name would surface following Shanahan’s departure.
Should all three men be confirmed, it would create stability among top leadership at the Pentagon that has been absent since Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis left the building. Come Monday, top jobs currently being filled by acting individuals include the secretary of defense, deputy secretary of defense, chief management officer, Air Force secretary, Army secretary, comptroller, and under secretary for personnel and readiness.
It should be noted that these are intents to nominate, not actual nominations; the Shanahan situation underlines that there is still a way to go for these three would be nominees. However, there is reason to believe all three will receive support from the Senate.
Several Senators this week, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., offered strong support for Esper to take over the top Pentagon job, with Inhofe saying Tuesday “I’ve been in the field with him to see how he does with troops, and he’s exceptionally good.
“The president was very positive that he’s going to be acting. He thinks highly of him and he knows I do too,” the SASC head added.
Inhofe has also encouraged Trump to send Norquist’s nomination in the past, while McCarthy has drawn praise from members of Congress for strong performances during hearings.
Both Esper and McCarthy come with ties to industry. Esper worked as vice president for government relations for Raytheon, while McCarthy worked as Lockheed Martin’s vice president for sustainment on the F-35 program.
The logistics of an actual nomination are important due to rules governed by the Vacancies Act. Under that rule, a nominee cannot serve in an acting capacity while formally nominated for the job; in addition, anyone in an acting capacity can only serve for 210 days.
There is also a ticking clock for Esper, according to Arnold Punaro, a former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director and retired Marine Corps three-star general. In a memo to reporters this week, Punaro said that Esper can serve as acting secretary only until July 30 of this year without a formal nomination, because the 210 day clock actually started when Mattis stepped down on Jan. 1 of this year, not with Shanahan’s exit.
Finally, the Senate schedule comes into play; the Senate must wait seven days after receiving a nomination to take it up in a hearing, and it is unclear just how quickly Inhofe could move a nomination forward given the various other issues Congress has on its docket, as well as planned summer breaks.
Together, that means the White House must deliver a formal nomination for Esper by July 30, at which point he would have to step down, ideally to be confirmed not much longer than a week later. Making that timing work will require coordination between the White House team and Inhofe.
Under the line of succession, when Esper has to step down, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer would become acting secretary.
Joe Gould of Defense News and Leo Shane III from Military Times contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.