Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren was criticized by fellow senators on the Armed Services Committee for her aggressive questioning of Defense Secretary nominee Mark Esper over whether Esper would agree to ethics rules more stringent than the law requires.
Under ethics rules, Esper, a former lobbyist for Raytheon, the nation’s third-largest defense contractor, must recuse himself from any decision involving Raytheon for two years. Because the two years began when Esper joined the Pentagon as Army Secretary, the restriction will expire in November.
Warren pressed Esper repeatedly to voluntarily extend the prohibition, peppering him with repeated question, without allowing Esper to answer.
Esper attempted to explain the process put in place by career professionals at the Pentagon to ensure there was no conflict of interest, but Warren consistently cut Esper off, demanding a yes or no answer.
Finally committee chairman intervened, ruling the Esper be allowed to answer Warren’s questions, to which Warren responded with a demand for more time.
Esper then read a statement from the Pentagon’s office of profession standards stating he has never asked for or received a waiver from the requirement that he recuse himself from any decision that could affect the fortunes of Raytheon.
Warren wanted to know if he would pledge never to seek a waiver for the entire time of his service as defense secretary.
“No, senator, I won’t,” said Esper, “because I am going to continue to abide by the rules and regulations, and I am going to continue to consult closely with my ethics person to ensure that we stay in the ethical midfield.”
Later Inhofe apologized to Esper for Warren’s combative exchange. “It was unfair, and you handed it beautifully,” he said.
The issue is complicated because as defense secretary Esper would have both an ethics agreement and screening arrangement, under which his staff would be directed to make sure any Raytheon-related business is not sent to, or seen, by Esper.
The law provides an exception in extraordinary cases such as national emergency when the matter is so important that it requires the secretary’s input.
Pentagon officials say that exemption is part of the law, and does not require a request from the secretary.
Several senators felt Warren’s prosecutorial approach crossed the line into political grandstanding.
“I’m very disappointed that Sen. Warren would demonize you after you decades of service simply because you served in the private sector,” said Rick Scott, a Florida Republican. “There’s a lot of us who have been in the private sector and that doesn’t take anything away from our ability to do our job. I guess she just needed a moment for her presidential campaign,” Scott said.
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