Before Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in December, the Defense Department had been helmed by an acting secretary just twice, the longest and most recent stint lasting two months in 1989 under President George H.W. Bush, The Associated Press reports. Now, the Pentagon is preparing for its third acting secretary in seven months.
There is also no Senate-confirmed deputy defense secretary, a confirmed incoming Joint Chiefs of Staff member and top Navy admiral abruptly retired this week, and the nominee for Joint Chiefs vice chairman, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, was just accused of sexual misconduct by a senior military officer, throwing his confirmation into doubt. “The causes are varied, but this leadership vacuum has nonetheless begun to make members of Congress and others uneasy, creating a sense that something is amiss in a critical arm of the government at a time of global uncertainty,” AP reports.
No previous administration has had more that one acting defense secretary, though the resignation of President Trump’s second consecutive acting secretary, Mark Esper — who took over from acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan when he abruptly resigned in June — is supposed to be temporary. Esper is legally required to step aside when he begins his Senate confirmation process next Tuesday, and in that period Navy Secretary Richard Spencer will fill in as acting Pentagon chief.
“Even our foes” expect more stability from the U.S. military, former Defense Secretary William Cohen told AP. “There will inevitably be increasing uncertainty regarding which officials have which authority, which undermines the very principle of civilian control of the military,” and “other countries — both allies and adversaries — will have considerable doubt about the authority granted to an acting secretary of defense both because of the uncertainty of confirmation as well as the worry that even being a confirmed official does not seem to come with the needed sense of permanence or job security in this administration.” Peter Weber