Army Secretary Mark Esper, nominated to be defense secretary, today defended his time as a senior Raytheon executive as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) argued that his failure to commit to several of her recusal proposals "smacks of corruption, plain and simple."
"I went to war for this country," Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing. "I served overseas for this country. I've stepped down from jobs that paid me well more than [government work]. Each time, it was to serve the public good."
Warren, one of the Democrats seeking the 2020 presidential nomination, pressed Esper to vow to never seek a waiver from his existing recusal pledge on all matters related to Raytheon, where he worked as the company's top lobbyist for six years. Esper declined.
Warren asked if he would commit to abstaining from working in the defense industry for at least four years after leaving government; again, Esper declined.
"Let me get this straight," she said. "You're still due to get at least a million-dollar payout from when you lobbied for Raytheon. You won't commit to recuse yourself. You insist on being free to seek a waiver that would let you make decisions affecting Raytheon's bottom line and your remaining financial interest. And you won't rule out taking a trip right back through the revolving door on your way out of government service."
Esper, angling to become the Pentagon's first chief since former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned Jan. 1, pushed back.
"I think the presumption is, for some reason, anybody who comes from the business or the corporate world is corrupt," he said.
Esper pointed to then-President Obama's decision in 2009 to ask Bill Lynn to serve as deputy defense secretary. At the time, Lynn was senior vice president of government relations for Raytheon -- the same job Esper had before joining the Trump administration.
Lynn served as deputy defense secretary from February 2009 to October 2011 and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. After leaving government, Lynn returned to the defense industry as chief executive of Leonardo DRS, the position he holds today.
At another point in the hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) noted that Frank Kendall was a Raytheon executive before becoming the Defense Department's top weapons buyer during the Obama administration.
Esper said he would follow the law and abide by all existing ethics and recusal protocols.
Still, Warren said Esper should not be confirmed as defense secretary.
"Secretary Esper, the American people deserve to know that you are making decisions in our country's security interests, not in your own financial interests," she said. "You can't make those commitments to this committee. That means you should not be confirmed as secretary of defense."
Warren and Esper had a similar exchange during his 2017 confirmation hearing to become Army secretary. She -- and five other Democrats -- voted against his final confirmation.
Warren has been long expressed concerns about former defense industry executives serving in positions of authority at the Pentagon, decrying the "coziness" between government and the military industrial complex.
The Trump administration has appointed several former defense executives to senior Pentagon positions, including former acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan, who spent more than 30 years at Boeing, and Under Secretary of Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord, former chief executive of Textron Systems.
Esper's exchange with Warren marked a contentious moment in an otherwise quiet hearing that featured bipartisan praise for Esper's record of government service.
At the start of the hearing, Esper was presented to the committee by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who called Esper "a person of sound character and moral courage."
Republicans on the committee apologized to Esper for Warren’s line of questioning.
"I'm very disappointed that Senator Warren would demonize you after your decades of service simply because you served in the private sector," Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) said. "I guess she just needed a moment for her presidential campaign."
Inhofe, the committee chairman, called her questioning "unfair," but said Esper "handled it beautifully."
Meanwhile, Republicans are seeking unanimous consent of all senators to expedite Esper'’s nomination and bring it to the floor for a vote on Thursday.
Warren's exchange with Esper suggests that unanimity is unlikely and could mean the Senate has to wait until next week to decide on the nomination.
Esper was confirmed as Army secretary in 2017 by a vote of 89-6.