Mark Esper

Mark Thomas Esper (born April 26, 1964)[1][2] is the 27th and current United States secretary of defense, and a former U.S. Army officer and defense contractor lobbyist. He previously served as the 23rd United States secretary of the Army from 2017 to 2019.

Mark Esper
Dr. Mark T. Esper – Secretary of Defense.jpg
27th United States Secretary of Defense
Assumed office
July 23, 2019
PresidentDonald Trump
DeputyRichard V. Spencer (acting)
David Norquist
Preceded byJim Mattis
In office
Acting: June 24, 2019 – July 15, 2019
PresidentDonald Trump
DeputyDavid Norquist (acting)
Preceded byPatrick M. Shanahan (acting)
Succeeded byRichard V. Spencer (acting)
23rd United States Secretary of the Army
In office
November 20, 2017 – July 23, 2019*
PresidentDonald Trump
DeputyRyan McCarthy
Preceded byRyan McCarthy (acting)
Succeeded byRyan McCarthy
Personal details
Mark Thomas Esper

(1964-04-26) April 26, 1964 (age 56)
Uniontown, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
Leah Lacy
m. 1989)
EducationUnited States Military Academy (BS)
Harvard University (MPA)
George Washington University (PhD)
Civilian awards DoD Medal for Distinguished Public Service
Military service
Allegiance United States
Branch/service United States Army
Years of service1986–2007
RankUS-O5 insignia.svg Lieutenant Colonel
Unit101st Airborne Division
Virginia Army National Guard
D.C. Army National Guard
U.S. Army Reserve
Battles/warsGulf War
Military awards Combat Infantryman Badge
Legion of Merit
Bronze Star
*McCarthy served in an acting capacity from June 24, 2019 to July 15, 2019, while Esper served as acting secretary of defense.

President Donald Trump announced on June 18, 2019, that Esper would become acting secretary of defense, succeeding acting secretary Patrick M. Shanahan.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

A West Point graduate, Esper began his career with decorated service as an commissioned officer in the United States Army. Later, he served as a Senate staffer, chief of staff at the Heritage Foundation, and Vice President for Government Relations at Raytheon.

Early life and educationEdit

Esper was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son of Pauline "Polly" (Reagan) and Thomas Joseph Esper.[6] His father was a member of the Maronite Church.[7] His paternal grandfather was an immigrant from Lebanon, and his uncle was war journalist George Esper.[8]

Esper graduated from Laurel Highlands High School outside Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1982.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

Esper married his wife, Leah Lacy, in 1989.[2][12] They have three children: Luke, John and Kate.[13][14]


Esper served as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division and deployed with the "Screaming Eagles" for the Gulf War. His battalion was part of the famous "left hook" that led to the defeat of the Iraqi Army.[15] For his actions, Esper was awarded a Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, and various service medals.[10] He later commanded an airborne rifle company in Europe and served as an Army fellow at the Pentagon.[9] 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.[16] 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, Kuwait Liberation Medal, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.[13]

Esper was chief of staff at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, from 1996 to 1998.[17] 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.[18] 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.[18] Esper was recognized as a top corporate lobbyist by The Hill in 2015 and 2016.[19][20] Esper's departure from Raytheon included a deferred compensation package after 2022, based partly on Raytheon's stock price.[21]

Secretary of the ArmyEdit

President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate Esper as Secretary of the Army on June 19, 2017.[22] He was Trump's third nominee for the position, following the withdrawals of Vincent Viola and Mark E. Green.[23] He was confirmed to this post by an 89–6 vote of the U.S. Senate on November 15, 2017[24] and sworn in on November 20, 2017.

While serving as Army Secretary, Esper was asked by reporters in 2018 whether soldiers had concerns about serving beside openly transgender individuals. He replied that "It really hasn't come up."[25] 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.[26][27]

Secretary of DefenseEdit

Temporary appointment and nominationEdit

Esper, with his wife Leah, is sworn in as Secretary of Defense by Justice Samuel Alito on July 23, 2019.

President Trump announced the appointment of Esper as Acting Secretary of Defense on June 18, 2019, after Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan decided to withdraw his nomination.[3] Four days later, it was announced that Trump would nominate Esper to serve as Secretary of Defense in a permanent capacity.[28] On July 15, 2019, the White House formally sent his nomination to the Senate.[29][30] Following his formal nomination, 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.[31] The Senate Committee on Armed Services scheduled a hearing on the nomination for the next day.[32] On July 22, 2019, the Senate voted 85–6 to invoke cloture on his nomination.[33] On July 23, 2019, his nomination was confirmed by a vote of 90–8.[34]


Esper hosts Saudi Prince Khalid bin Salman at the Pentagon, August 29, 2019
Esper inspects troops alongside Vietnamese defense minister Ngô Xuân Lịch in Hanoi, November 20, 2019

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.[35]

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.[36] Meanwhile, Trump cited the Gallagher case as the primary reason for Esper's firing of Spencer, while also citing "large cost overruns" in the Navy.[37]

Esper met with his European counterparts in February 2020 to discuss basing options for a new United States Army headquarters in Europe, bearing the name "V Corps" that had originally been established in World War I but was inactivated while stationed in Germany in 2013. Esper stated the new headquarters was needed to improve military coordination among NATO partners.[38]

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 amounted to $738 billion allocations to the United States military. Esper said: "I’m good with those dollars. No complaints."[39]

Withdrawal of U.S. forces from AfghanistanEdit

On February 29, 2020, the Trump administration signed a conditional peace agreement with the Taliban, which calls for the withdrawal of foreign troops in 14 months if the Taliban uphold the terms of the agreement.[40][41] In May 2020, Esper said: "I don’t put a timeline on it. We have a timeline of May of next year but that timeline was premised on everything moving at a set pace."[42]

Potential withdrawal of U.S. forces from GermanyEdit

President Trump, Esper and Polish president Andrzej Duda at the White House on June 24, 2020.[43]

On June 6, 2020, President Trump directed the Pentagon to remove 9,500 American troops from Germany – capping the total number at 25,000.[44] A White House official and Trump said the move was partially influenced by U.S. frustration with Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, owned by Russia's Gazprom,[45][46] and with Germany's unwillingness to spend more on defense in support of NATO.[47][48] On June 24, 2020, Trump said at a press conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda that the United States plans to move some U.S. troops from Germany to Poland.[46] Trump said "I think [putting more US troops in Poland] sends a very strong signal to Russia."[49]

The announcement reportedly caught NATO, Germany, and the Pentagon off guard.[50] Trump's announcement faced immediate criticism from all corners, including from Republicans on Capitol Hill who believed the move would embolden Russia and harm NATO.[51] The White House plan to withdraw troops created “a new point of tension between the President and top Pentagon leaders," including Esper, who reportedly had concerns about it, including that it compromised America's defense against Russia.[52]

In the midst of a comprehensive review of the European Command, Esper was reportedly willing to consider adjusting troop levels in Europe, as the defense secretary has done in previous reviews with other combatant commands pursuant to the 2018 NDS — but not if European Command reductions damaged the NATO alliance and U.S. deterrence of Russia.[53]

Esper with Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar at NATO headquarters in Brussels

On June 26, Esper travelled to NATO headquarters in Brussels to meet with NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.[54] The reported purpose of the trip was to consult with Stoltenberg on a range of alliance matters, including the reduction of U.S. forces from Germany.[55]

On June 30, Esper met with President Trump at the White House to brief him on the proposed Defense Department plan.[56] The president approved Esper's proposal, recognizing that a rapid withdrawal of troops from Germany was “logistically impossible”.[57]

COVID-19 pandemicEdit

In late January 2020, as the coronavirus spread, Esper said he was "not tracking" its spread, as the Trump administration downplayed the risks of the disease.[58][59]

As the coronavirus outbreak turned into a pandemic in early March 2020, Esper directed overseas commanders of U.S. forces to check with him before taking actions to protect U.S. troops, lest they contradict the Trump administration's messaging on the coronavirus. A Defense Department official said Esper's intent was to ensure that the government was "communicating to the public with one voice on a rapidly developing situation" and Esper assured the public that "My No. 1 priority remains to protect our forces and their families.”[60] The following week, Esper directed the deployment of two Navy hospital ships, the USNS Comfort and the USNS Mercy, to take pressure off New York and Los Angeles hospitals as they coped with the pandemic.[61] Esper also authorized the Defense Department to provide civilian health authorities with five million respirator masks and 2,000 specialized ventilators.[62]

In early April, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly removed Navy Captain Brett Crozier from command of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt after Crozier pleaded with Navy leaders to move more quickly to in the face of a coronavirus outbreak on the ship. Esper defended Modly's decision,[63] though he conceded that he had not read Crozier's letter calling for help.[59] Within days, widespread condemnation led Modly to resign. Esper named James McPherson, Under Secretary of the Army, to replace him.[64]

Esper visits FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C. during the COVID-19 pandemic, April 15, 2020

On April 14, 2020, Esper announced the extension of a travel freeze on military members and Department of Defense civilian employees. The original order to stop movement was to last for 60 days, but Esper said that additional time was needed to stop the spread of the virus.[65] Several days following the announcement, Esper extended the freeze through June 30, 2020.[66]

Lawmakers, retired officers and experts criticized Esper's response to the coronavirus, describing it as slow and indecisive. According to Politico, there was discontent within the Department of Defense about Esper's leadership on the issue. Esper primarily left it up to local commanders in terms of how they would respond to the pandemic, which resulted in uneven responses. Several military officials said there was a lack of top-down planning and guidance on important decisions.[59] In a letter in late April 2020, ten Democratic senators called Esper's leadership "disjointed and slow", saying that DOD's civilian leadership had "failed to act sufficiently, quickly, and has often prioritized [combat] readiness at the expense of the health of service members and their families."[67] A Pentagon spokesman defended DoD's handling of the pandemic.[68][69]

In May 2020, at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe, Esper interacted without a face mask with seven World War II veterans who were between the ages of 96 and 100. The elderly are at an elevated risk of illness and death from the coronavirus; health experts and authorities advise that the spread can be halted with face masks and social distancing measures. In response to critics, Jonathan Hoffman, a Pentagon spokesman, said Esper was tested before the event; a White House official said the veterans were also tested before the event.[70]

That same month, Esper declared that a widely available vaccine would be available by the end of 2020. However, a leaked Pentagon memo said there was a "real possibility" that a vaccine would not be available until "at least the summer of 2021."[71][72]

George Floyd protestsEdit

On June 1, 2020, amid nationwide civil unrest arising from the killing of George Floyd by police, Esper was called to the White House to meet with President Trump who, according to a CBS news report wanted to deploy 10,000 active duty troops in response to the nationwide unrest. Later that morning, in an attempt to satisfy Trump's demand, Esper and Milley used a call with the nation's governors to implore them to call up the National Guard in their own states, the official said. If these governors didn't "call up the Guard, we'd have (active duty) troops all over the country," this official said. White House spokesperson Alyssa Farah and Attorney General William Barr subsequently denied that the President made a request for 10,000 active duty troops.[73]

The call with the governors was focused on the need to deal with those breaking the law and committing acts of violence against the police, their fellow citizens, and private property. During the call, Trump, Barr, and Esper spoke of “dominating” the streets as a way to reduce violence and allow peaceful protestors to exercise their First Amendment rights. Barr spoke of calling up additional law enforcement assets. Esper spoke of governors' employing the National Guard under their (state) control, citing the action taken and positive results achieved by Governor Tim Walz, Democrat of Minnesota, over the previous weekend.[74]

During the call, Esper told state governors, "I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal."[74] In a June 3 Pentagon press conference, Esper clarified details of the call with the governors and explained the use of the term "dominate the battlespace."[75]

On June 1, Esper walked alongside Trump to a photo op in front of St. John's Episcopal Church outside the White House; just prior, police in riot gear and mounted police cleared protestors who had been throwing bricks and other projectiles[76] from Lafayette Square, using smoke and flash grenades and a chemical irritant spray, clearing a path for Trump, Esper and several other Trump administration officials.[77] Esper's participation in the photo op was criticized by a number of retired senior military officers.[78]

Two days later, in his prepared remarks at a June 3 Pentagon press conference, Esper said an NBC report had misquoted him:[79]

"Last night, a story came out based on a background interview I did earlier in the day, it focused on the events of last Monday evening in Lafayette Park, and I found it to be inaccurate in parts. So I want to state very clearly for all to hear my account of what happened that Monday afternoon.

I did know that following the president’s remarks on Monday evening, that many of us were going to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park and at St. John’s Episcopal Church. What I was not aware of was exactly where we’re going when we arrived at the church and what the plans were once we got there.

It was also my aim and General Milley’s to meet with and thank the members of the National Guard who were on duty that evening in the park. It is something the president likes to do as well. The path we took to and from the church didn’t afford us that opportunity, but I was able to spend a considerable amount of time with our Guardsman later that evening, as I moved around the city to many of the locations at which they were posted."

Responding to a reporter's question, Esper said:[79]

"Well, I did know that we were going to the church. I was not aware of a photo op was happening. Of course, the president drags a large press pool along with him. And look, I do everything I can to try to stay apolitical and try and stay out of situations that may appear political. And sometimes I’m successful at doing that, and sometimes I’m not as successful, but my aim is to keep the department out of politics to stay apolitical. And that’s what I continue to try and do as well as my leaders, here in the department."

Esper broke with President Trump by announcing that active-duty troops should not be used in American cities, called up under invocation of the 1807 Insurrection Act[80].

"I’ve always believed and continue to believe that the National Guard is best suited for performing domestic support to civil authorities and these situations in support of local law enforcement. I say this not only as Secretary of Defense, but also as a former soldier, and a former member of the National Guard. The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act."[80]

Esper's statement damped Trump's push to invoke the Insurrection Act and changed the dynamic of the first two days.  Esper took steps in the following days to further de-escalate the situation, removing weapons and ammunition from the National Guard, and returning troops to their home bases without notifying the White House. Trump, already furious about Esper's unwillingness to employ active duty troops, came close to firing him.[81]

On June 6, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) invited Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley to testify before the committee regarding the events of June 1; they declined. Chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in statement that the pair "have not 'refused' to testify'" and that the department's “legislative affairs team remains in discussion" with the committee.[82] HASC chairman Representative Adam Smith later acknowledged in a written letter that Esper and Milley may have been prevented from appearing by the White House.[83] Esper and Milley subsequently agreed to appear before the House Armed Services Committee on July 9.[84] In the meantime, on June 8, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy to brief the committee on the presence of the National Guard in Washington, D.C., during the protests on June 1.[85]

Days later, Esper and Milley responded in detail to a series of questions asked of them by HASC chairman Smith regarding events during the week of June 1. Smith later said the Pentagon had been "reasonably cooperative" in providing witnesses to the committee amid logistical issues during the coronavirus pandemic.[84]

Addressing racial discrimination in the U.S. militaryEdit

Amid the racial unrest across America in June 2020, Esper directed Pentagon civilian and uniformed leaders to come up with ideas that could be used to quickly improve equal opportunity, diversity, and inclusion in the Armed Forces; established an internal Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion in the Military to recommend ways to increase racial diversity and ensure equal opportunity across all ranks, especially in the officer corps, by December 2020; and created a Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion in the Armed Services, mirroring the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.[86][87][88]

In a June 18, 2020, he said that while the Defense Department has often led on issues of race and discrimination, he cited underrepresentation of minorities in the officer ranks as a particular problem.[89][90]


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External linksEdit

Political offices
Preceded by
Ryan McCarthy
United States Secretary of the Army
Succeeded by
Ryan McCarthy
Preceded by
Patrick M. Shanahan
United States Secretary of Defense

Succeeded by
Richard V. Spencer
Preceded by
Jim Mattis
United States Secretary of Defense
U.S. order of precedence (ceremonial)
Preceded by
Steve Mnuchin
as Secretary of the Treasury
Order of Precedence of the United States
as Secretary of Defense
Succeeded by
William Barr
as Attorney General
U.S. presidential line of succession
Preceded by
Steve Mnuchin
as Secretary of the Treasury
6th in line
as Secretary of Defense
Succeeded by
William Barr
as Attorney General