WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is facing down threats in such places as the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea, Syria and Venezuela. Yet looming now could be the biggest adversary: the federal bureaucracy.
Staring down the Pentagon: a once obscure rule that limits the time an individual can usually serve as in an “acting” capacity in a post requiring confirmation to 210 days.
In the case of the defense secretary position, the time frame ends July 31. That means if nothing changes before then, the current acting defense secretary, Mark Esper, will have to step out of the post.
As of today, July 9, it has been 190 days. The 210-day clock ends on July 29.
The other caveat is that if the White House sends a nomination for defense secretary to Congress, an individual can remain as “acting” defense secretary past the 210-day limit — as long as that person is not the same person who has been nominated for the post.
Thus, if Esper is nominated — as President Donald Trump said he would be — he would have to step out of the “acting” defense secretary post and wait until he is confirmed for the job.
If that occurs, then someone else will be the next acting defense secretary — the third this year.
The Pentagon told reporters Tuesday not to worry, all is figured out.
“It’s very important for everybody in the world to know, we have a plan,” Eric Chewning, the acting chief of staff for the acting defense secretary told Pentagon reporters.
As of Tuesday, 18 top positions across the civilian Pentagon force are empty.
They include the Defense Secretary; Air Force Secretary; Army Secretary; Deputy Secretary of Defense; Chief Management Officer; Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness; Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness; Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs; Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Reserve Affairs; Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs; Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness; Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict; Director of the National Reconnaissance Office; Undersecretary of the Army; Undersecretary of the Air Force, and Inspector General.
Esper has been serving as acting defense secretary since June 24. The Senate Armed Services Committee has not yet received his nomination paperwork to become the official defense secretary.
If Esper’s nomination reaches the Senate, he will return to being Army secretary and Richard Spencer, current Navy secretary, will be the new acting defense secretary, Chewning said.
He said Spencer has been attending all the key meetings over the past two weeks to ensure he is up on all issues.
“Only one person will serve as the secretary of defense,” Chewning said. “That person has all the authorities necessary at the appointed time to defend American interests and protect the homeland.”
Chewning was asked when Esper’s nomination paperwork will be sent to the Senate. “Our expectation is that will be shortly,” he said.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the Senate majority leader, told reporters Tuesday he expects Esper to be confirmed before the August recess.
The Senate is set to recess for the summer on Aug. 2 and return on Sept. 9.
Esper replaced Patrick Shanahan as acting defense secretzry. Shanahan was elevated from Deputy Defense Secretary to acting defense secretary on January 1, filling the slot vacated by James Mattis, who resigned.
Trump said he would nominate Shanahan for the post but never sent the paperwork to the Sente. Shanahan said in June he would withdraw from consideration for the to job and resign as deputy defense secreary in the wake of publicity regarding a 2010 domestic violence incident involving his family.