Intel: Why 5 Democratic presidential hopefuls just rebelled against Trump’s new defense secretary

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An overwhelming bipartisan majority of the Senate voted 90-8 today to confirm former Army Secretary Mark Esper as President Donald Trump’s new defense secretary. The outliers? Mostly Democrats running to oust Trump from the White House.

Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kamala Harris of California all voted against the nomination. Michael Bennett of Colorado was the only Democratic presidential candidate in the Senate to vote for Esper while Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., didn’t vote.

Why it matters: Although numerous Democrats have voiced concern about the lack of Senate-confirmed leadership at the Defense Department as tensions with Iran continue to mount, most presidential candidates in Congress offered myriad reasons for voting against Esper’s nomination — some of which have direct implications on US policy in the Middle East.

Separation of powers: Shortly after the vote, Gillibrand tweeted that she voted against Esper in part because of the Trump administration’s stance on the use existing legal authorities to use military force in the region — formally known as an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF).

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“I oppose his views on the use of old AUMFs to continue hostilities,” wrote Gillibrand, also citing concerns about the transgender military ban and Esper’s readiness to address military sexual assault. 

The New Yorker's specific concerns over his legal views on military force were not immediately clear as her office did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment by deadline. During his confirmation hearing last week, Esper said the 2001 AUMF used against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State does not apply to Iran. However, he said the Constitution’s Article II powers allow the president to defend against an Iranian attack. Gillibrand sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee but did not attend his confirmation hearing to question him last week.

Arms deals: Warren took advantage of the hearing to grill Esper over his former job as a top lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon.

The Massachusetts senator ultimately voted against Esper over his refusal to extend his recusal from “real or perceived conflicts of interest” involving Raytheon past November, when the recusal is set to expire. In a letter to Esper last week, she specifically cited Trump’s use of emergency authorities to sell Saudi Arabia “high-tech bomb parts” made by Raytheon.

She also wrote that it would “raise serious ethical questions” if Esper tried to persuade Turkey to buy the Raytheon-manufactured Patriot missile system instead of the Russian-made S-400 system. Lawmakers in both parties and Trump have both sought to convince Turkey to buy the Patriot missiles instead of the S-400 system.

What’s next: Despite opposition from most of the Senate’s White House hopefuls, Esper is at the helm of the US military and has plenty on his plate. He must now contend with rapidly escalating tensions with Iran, Turkish threats to launch an offensive against US-backed Syrian Kurdish rebels, Islamic State sleeper cells in Iraq and opposition to US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Know more: Brush up before next week’s Democratic debates with Al-Monitor’s 2020 series, which provides a more comprehensive view of the candidates’ views on the Middle East than you’ll find anywhere else.

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Bryant Harris is Al-Monitor's congressional correspondent. He was previously the White House assistant correspondent for Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera English and IPS News. Prior to his stint in DC, he spent two years as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. On Twitter: @brykharris_ALM, Email: bharris@al-monitor.com.

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