|27th United States Secretary of Defense|
July 23, 2019 – November 9, 2020
|Deputy||Richard V. Spencer (acting)|
|Preceded by||Jim Mattis|
|Succeeded by||Lloyd Austin|
June 24, 2019 – July 15, 2019
|Deputy||David Norquist (acting)|
|Preceded by||Patrick M. Shanahan (acting)|
|Succeeded by||Richard V. Spencer (acting)|
|23rd United States Secretary of the Army|
November 20, 2017 – July 23, 2019*
|Preceded by||Ryan McCarthy (acting)|
|Succeeded by||Ryan McCarthy|
Mark Thomas Esper
April 26, 1964
Uniontown, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Relatives||George Esper (uncle)|
|Education||United States Military Academy (BS)|
Harvard University (MPA)
George Washington University (PhD)
|Occupation||Manufacturing executive, politician|
|Civilian awards||Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service|
|Branch/service||United States Army|
|Years of service||1986–2007|
|Unit||101st Airborne Division|
82nd Airborne Division
Virginia Army National Guard
D.C. Army National Guard
United States Army Reserve
|*McCarthy served in an acting capacity from June 24, 2019 to July 15, 2019, while Esper served as Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense.|
Mark Thomas Esper (born April 26, 1964) is an American manufacturing executive and politician who served as the 27th United States Secretary of Defense from July 2019 to November 2020. A member of the Republican Party, he previously was the 23rd U.S. Secretary of the Army from November 2017 to July 2019.
A West Point graduate, Esper joined the United States Army and served as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne Division. He was deployed and saw active service in the Gulf War. Esper subsequently served in the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army National Guard. After leaving military service, he was chief of staff at the Heritage Foundation, a congressional staffer, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, as well as a senior executive for the Aerospace Industries Association, the Global Intellectual Property Center and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Immediately before joining the Trump Administration, Esper worked as a defense industry lobbyist representing Raytheon as its vice president of government relations.
In 2017, he joined the Trump Administration as the 23rd Secretary of the Army. Esper assumed the office of Acting Secretary of Defense in 2019 and was confirmed as the 27th Secretary of Defense by the United States Senate with a vote of 90–8 shortly afterwards.
Esper was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son of Pauline "Polly" Reagan and Thomas Joseph Esper. His father was a member of the Maronite Church. His paternal grandfather was an immigrant from Lebanon, and his uncle was war journalist George Esper.
Esper graduated from Laurel Highlands High School outside Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1982. 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. 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.
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. For his actions, Esper was awarded a Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, and various service medals. He later commanded an airborne rifle company in Europe and served as an Army fellow at the Pentagon. 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. 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.
Esper was chief of staff at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, from 1996 to 1998. 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. He was policy director for the House Armed Services Committee from 2001 to 2002. From 2002 to 2004, Esper served in George W. Bush's 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 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 U.S. 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. Esper was recognized as a top corporate lobbyist by The Hill in 2015 and 2016. Esper's departure from Raytheon included a deferred compensation package after 2022, based partly on Raytheon's stock price.
President Donald Trump announced his intention to nominate Esper as Secretary of the Army on June 19, 2017. He was Trump's third nominee for the position, following the withdrawals of Vincent Viola and Mark E. Green. He was confirmed to this post by an 89–6 vote of the U.S. Senate on November 15, 2017 and sworn in on November 20, 2017.
President Trump first tweeted his objections to transgender servicemembers in July 2017, and, under his Presidential Memorandum of August 25, 2017, he required the Department of Defense to produce a report on this subject. Esper was asked by reporters in February 2018 whether soldiers had concerns about serving beside openly transgender individuals. He replied: "It really hasn't come up."
After Esper was nominated to become Secretary of Defense, he said that he had met several transgender servicemembers and was impressed with them. Nonetheless, he supported Directive-type Memorandum-19-004, which required servicemembers to meet cisgendered standards associated with their biological sex. Esper claimed it was not a "blanket ban" on transgender servicemembers but rather a policy to ensure that servicemembers are deployable worldwide and can meet military standards without "special accommodations." He said that servicemembers would be individually assessed and that some would be offered waivers to continue serving. In this interview, Esper cited the Defense Department's February 2018 report to support his views.
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. Four days later, it was announced that Trump would nominate Esper to serve as Secretary of Defense in a permanent capacity. On July 15, 2019, the White House formally sent his nomination to the Senate. 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. The Senate Committee on Armed Services scheduled a hearing on the nomination for the next day. On July 22, 2019, the Senate voted 85–6 to invoke cloture on his nomination. On July 23, 2019, his nomination was confirmed by a vote of 90–8.
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.
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.
In response to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, which included $738 billion in defense spending, Esper said: "I’m good with those dollars. No complaints." Esper provided a framework for members of Congress to insert a proviso in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which guides the naming of military installations.
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. 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.
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. 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."
In 2020, Trump directed the Pentagon to remove 11,800 of the nearly 35,000 American troops stationed in Germany. 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; cited Germany's unwillingness to spend more on defense in support of NATO and accused Germany of being "very delinquent"; and said of Germany, "They make a fortune off the troops. They build cities around our troops. ... We'll let ourselves get rich first." While Trump framed the withdrawal as an act of retribution against the Germans, Esper cited a different rationale, framing the decision in strategic terms, although he acknowledged that Trump's anger at German military spending "accelerated" the process. Esper agreed with Trump that Germany was a "rich country" that "can and should pay more for its defense."
The idea for a significant reduction of troops from Germany originated from the White House, where it was pushed by two Trump advisers, Robert C. O'Brien and Richard Grenell. Defense Department officials were largely cut off from the decisionmaking and feared that the partial withdrawal from Germany would inhibit regional defenses against Russia. Esper had significant concerns about the plan, but avoided publicly criticizing it and worked to implement Trump's directive. Esper reportedly believed that Trump's demand for speedy troop withdrawal was logistically impossible; the Associated Press reported that "A number of NATO diplomats and officials have suggested the pullout — which would be costly and might not even be logistically possible before the U.S. elections in November — probably won’t happen."
Trump's announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops was made without consultation with Germany or other NATO allies. In June 2020, Esper traveled to NATO headquarters in Brussels to meet with NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg and to reassure him that the U.S. would not announce any further troop movements or reductions without first consulting with NATO allies.
In June 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. Esper backed Trump's decision, saying that the Pentagon wants to send more troops to the Baltic states, Poland and Romania.
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.
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. Esper said that "My No. 1 priority remains to protect our forces and their families." 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. Esper also authorized the Defense Department to provide civilian health authorities with five million respirator masks and 2,000 specialized ventilators.
In early April 2020, 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, though he conceded that he had not read Crozier's letter calling for help. Within days, widespread condemnation led Modly to resign. Esper named James McPherson, Under Secretary of the Army, to replace him.
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. Several days following the announcement, Esper extended the freeze through June 30, 2020.
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. 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." A Pentagon spokesman defended DoD's handling of the pandemic.
In May 2020, at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe, Esper was criticized for interacting with seven World War II veterans who were between the ages of 96 and 100 without wearing a facemask. In response to critics, the administration said that Esper and the veterans were tested before the event.
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According to multiple reports, on June 1, 2020, amid nationwide civil unrest arising from the killing of George Floyd by police, Trump at one point demanded the deployment of 10,000 active-duty troops to the streets of Washington and other U.S. cities in a heated meeting in the Oval Office with Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, who opposed this request. Trump's spokesperson Alyssa Farah and Attorney General William Barr denied that Trump had requested the deployment of 10,000 active-duty troops, with Barr saying instead that Trump wanted troops on "standby."
Esper participated in a June 1 call with state governors, Trump, and Barr, in which Trump urged governors to "dominate" and use aggressive methods. During the call, Esper said, "I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal." Esper's suggestion that American cities were a "battlespace" prompted significant criticism, including from former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Martin E. Dempsey and former Special Operations Command head Raymond A. Thomas. At a subsequent press conference, Esper said that he did not intend the use of the term to focus "on people, and certainly not on our fellow Americans."
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 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. Esper's participation in the photo op was criticized by a number of retired senior military officers.
Two days later, at a Pentagon press conference, Esper said, regarding the Lafayette Park photo op, that, "Well, I did know that we were going to the church. I was not aware of a photo op was happening," adding, "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."
Esper broke with Trump by publicly opposing invocation of the Insurrection Act of 1807 and the deployment of active-duty troops in American cities, saying that "the National Guard is best suited for performing domestic support to civil authorities ... 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." 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 reportedly considered firing Esper over the situation.
On June 6, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) invited Esper and 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. 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. Esper and Milley subsequently agreed to appear before the House Armed Services Committee on July 9. 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.
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.
Amid the nationwide racial unrest beginning in late May 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.
On June 18, 2020, Esper 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.
In October 2020, Esper and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geospatial Cooperation (BECA), which facilitates the sharing of sensitive information and intelligence—including access to highly-accurate nautical, aeronautical, topographical, and geospatial data—between the United States and India. The agreement had been under discussion for over a decade, but previous concerns over information security impelled India's United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government to block it.
On November 9, 2020, President Donald Trump tweeted that Esper was "terminated," and that he had been replaced by Christopher C. Miller, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center who would serve as Acting Secretary of Defense. Esper had written his resignation letter shortly after the 2020 election when a winner had not yet been determined.
Esper married his wife, Leah Lacy, in 1989. The couple have three children.