Department of Defense Press Briefing on the Secretary of Defense Nomination Process

Eric Chewning, Chief Of Staff to the Acting Secretary of Defense; Two Senior Defense Officials


ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JONATHAN HOFFMAN: All right. Good morning, everybody. Thank you for joining us today.

We're here to give a brief for you on the acting secretary -- the nomination process, and some questions you guys have had about what does that process look like, what does that mean for succession planning here at the department. And so we wanted to walk through that with you.

So, John Hoffman, assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs. With us today are Eric Chewning, the chief of staff to the acting secretary of defense, (Senior Defense Official One) and (Senior Defense Official Two).

We're going to start with -- Mr. Chewning's going to read a statement -- or make opening comments. And then we'll go into it. The opening statement is on the record. Questions will be on background. We can negotiate other things that we've moved up. And I will – we’ll just do the questions.

Originally it was going to be embargoed. No embargo. As soon as we're done, you guys are welcome to go with this as soon as the briefing concludes.

So with that, Eric?

CHIEF OF STAFF ERIC CHEWNING: Yeah, thanks, Jonathan.

So hello, everyone. This morning, I wanted to take a few minutes to provide additional transparency into the SECDEF nomination and succession process.

Continuity planning is a core competency for the Department of Defense, and the department has rehearsed and planned for a DOD succession under a range of scenarios. In each scenario, the planning ensures there is one person in charge of the Department of Defense with the authorities necessary to protect our homeland and defend America's interests around the world.

When the Senate receives the president's official nomination for Acting Secretary Spencer to be the secretary of defense, he will cease to serve as the acting secretary of defense and become solely serving as the secretary of the Army.

At the same time, Ryan McCarthy, the under secretary of the Army, who is currently performing the duties of the secretary of the Army while Dr. Esper is acting secretary of defense, will solely serve as the under secretary of the Army.

So very simply, what will happen is, the White House will send a formal nomination to the Senate. The Senate will receive it. Acting Secretary Esper will step out of his role as the acting secretary of defense and revert to his role as secretary of the Army. He's physically going to move offices, so he's going to move from where he currently is in the secretary of defense's office, go back to his office over in the Army.

And Under Secretary McCarthy, who's currently performing the duties of secretary of the Army because Secretary Esper fleeted up to be the acting secretary of defense, will just revert back to being the under secretary of the Army. Okay.

Concurrently, as outlined in Executive Order 13533, aptly titled, "Providing an Order of Succession Within the Department of Defense," dated March 1, 2010, the secretary of the Navy, who's the next in line for succession, who is Richard Spencer at this time -- he will become the acting secretary of defense. All right?

So succession just moves from each service. The most senior service after the Army is the Navy. We have a confirmed secretary of the Navy. It's Richard Spencer. Richard Spencer fleets up to become the acting secretary of defense.

Now, for the last two weeks, we've been spending time with Secretary Spencer to get him prepared for his duties as the acting secretary of defense. That's involved a range of operational briefings from the Joint Staff, as well as a series of briefings around the duties that the secretary of defense alone has responsibilities for, from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

So we've spent the last two weeks getting Richard spun up on all the different operational contingencies, all the worldwide planning and all the duties that he'll have to take on as the acting secretary.

Then as you're aware, as a service secretary, Richard has responsibilities for organizing, training and equipping the force, but he hasn't been exposed to the range of operational issues that the secretary of defense is responsible for, and so we spent the last two weeks getting him up to speed on what those are so he'll be ready to take on that responsibility as soon as Acting Secretary Spencer -- Acting Secretary Esper moves out of the role.

In addition, the senior team supporting the Office of the Secretary will remain in place to ensure institutional continuity. So most notably, that includes David Norquist. As you all know, David is the under secretary of defense and comptroller and the chief financial officer who has been performing the duties of the deputy secretary of defense since January.

We're going to keep David in his role performing the duties of the deputy secretary of defense during this transition period. In addition, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dunford, will remain in his position, as well the chief of staff to the secretary of defense, Eric Chewning.

So the team around Secretary Spencer is going to stay in place to ensure institutional continuity through the transition. The department has fully coordinated this continuity plan with the White House and the relevant interagency entities.

We're also going to brief our allies and partners to ensure a smooth transition so they're aware of how we're conducting the transition. We're working closely with Senate leadership and the Senate Armed Services Committee. We thank them for their efforts and commitment to swiftly consider top DOD leadership when they receive the formal nomination.

We will not presume confirmation. Let me be very clear about that, there's no presumption around confirmation, and it is the prerogative of the Senate to take as long as they think is necessary to examine and confirm a nominee. Right?

So the minute the nomination goes to the Senate, it's the Senate's prerogative to take as long as they need to. So we have prepared Secretary Spencer to remain in the role until we have a confirmed secretary of defense.

Now, it's important to note, I think some of you were thinking about the impact of the Vacancies Act, right? So the 210-day clock for the Vacancies Act expires on or about July 30th. Now it's suspended when the Senate is looking at a nominee.

So effectively the clock will go on pause while Secretary Esper is being reviewed by the Senate and Secretary Spencer is in the role of acting. And so he can stay in that status for as long as necessary for the Senate to examine -- to examine Secretary Esper.

If Dr. Esper is confirmed by the Senate and then appointed by the president as the Secretary of Defense, then Mr. Norquist will be formally nominated to be the deputy secretary and will, in deference to the Senate, step out of his role of performing the duties of the deputy secretary of defense while his nomination is pending before the Senate.

All right, just so you understand the -- the choreography, we'll go through the process with Secretary Esper. Assuming Secretary Esper gets confirmed, then we'll remove the person currently conducting the duties as the deputy secretary, David Norquist, and then he will go through a confirmation process.

I promise we'll come back and keep you all updated as this unfolds. We are going to be transparent as we move through the process. It's very important for the department for everybody in the world to know we have a plan. Only one person will serve as the Secretary of Defense. That person has all the authorities necessary at the appointed time to defend American interests and protect the homeland.

ASST. TO SEC. HOFFMAN: All right. So guys, I'll start by saying thank you for your patience as we got you to this information. I know a number of you have been asking about it. We wanted to make sure it was accurate and correct and had -- had the process in place.

So with that, I know you've had a lot of questions, so we'll go -- Lita?

Q: Hi, Lolita Baldor, AP.

So I just want to double check one thing and then another question. First of all, we understand there's some discussion about a hearing perhaps middle -- mid to later July. Do you have any understanding or any sense that that is going to happen or a date for that?

And then my second question is, additionally there was some thought that when Secretary Spencer stepped in, because he's not a first assistant, that he would be ‘performing the duties of,’ and I want to make sure –- since he -- is it because he's in the line of succession, or legally --

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure, I understand where you're going with this, yeah. So --

ASST. TO SEC. HOFFMAN: I just want to reiterate, the answers on the questions are going to be on background and we'll talk about negotiated if we need to move those up.

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: So on your -- on your first one, so the control of the movement of the nomination from the White House to the Senate is under the purview of the White House. So the White House controls the timing of when that nomination moves.

Our expectation -- and we're prepared -- is that'll be shortly. In terms of the role that under -- that Acting Secretary Spencer will play, so by operation of law, which is governed by that Executive Order 13533, the next in line for succession automatically becomes the acting secretary.

And so to -- to -- so to your question, it's under the operation of that executive order, he would become the acting secretary.

And I've got (Senior Defense Official One) here to clean up anything I may have gotten wrong legally.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: You’ve got it perfect.

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: All right, thank you.

ASST. TO SEC. HOFFMAN: All right, Barbara?

Q: One thing, Jonathan, are we supposed to come back and ask -- it's just an admin question -- ask you about putting certain things on the record? And if you say yes, will you make it known to everyone --

ASST. TO SEC. HOFFMAN: We’ll share with the group.

Q: Okay.

So my -- one question is, Eric, what actually triggers the process? Is it -- what is the actual legal act that triggers it? Is it sending it to the Hill, or --

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Receipt. Confirmation by the Senate that they've received the formal nomination.

Q: So there is some act by -- I'm sorry to bug you --

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: That's fine.

Q: -- by the Senate or the Senate Armed Services Committee, a formal acceptance?

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure. So I -- I'm -- I'm going to look to (Senior Defense Official One) to make sure I get this right, but it gets transferred to –

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: You -- you're exactly right, Eric. The president will submit the nomination to the Senate. When the Senate receives the nomination, it will of course refer it to the Armed Services Committee, but the process is triggered when -- when the Senate receives the nomination.

Q: And two very quick follow ups. When are -- will you -- I don't -- I don't know, in advance, or after it happens, or exactly when it happens, when will you tell everyone the exact moment of transfer?

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure. So it is a bit different than, so when we had the transition between Secretary Shanahan and Secretary Esper. We intentionally picked a date and time so there was a clear, transparent hand-off.

With this, because it'll be event driven, what we'll do is we'll send a notification to the force that announces that Secretary Spencer is now the acting secretary of defense, and that will get communicated internally within the department, and then we'll also do an external communication so that all of you are aware that transition's occurred.

Q: Well, exactly at the same time?

(CROSSTALK)

ASST. TO SEC. HOFFMAN: It’ll take place as close to the exact moment as possible.

Q: Hi, Tara Copp with McClatchy. Thanks for taking the question.

Secretary Spencer stepping in as acting comes as there's now not a clear succession for the CNO. Have you had any discussions about the Navy, specifically leadership within the Navy, and how -- how will that vacuum be filled if Secretary Spencer steps up?

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure, so -- so we have, and I'm not going to get into that, here, because I wanted to keep this focused on the -- the secretary of defense, but we -- we can come -- we'll have more on that later that we can follow-up on.

Q: Okay. And then just one follow-up: In the off chance that the acting secretary is not confirmed, does he then return to his position of secretary of the Army?

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: They -- we can talk about that, should we find ourselves in that scenario.

ASST. TO SEC. HOFFMAN: Missy.

Q: Yeah, just two questions.

So you said that you -- your -- the White House controls the transmission of the nomination but you said you expect that shortly. So I mean, just to give an idea, do we expect that Spencer would be the acting SECDEF for a couple of weeks at least? I mean, because that --

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yeah. Yeah, that's a fair question.

So here's how I think about it. Once the nomination moves forward from the White House to the Senate, it's -- then the Senate controls the clock, right? And so it's -- they'll -- they'll define how long it takes.

When we look at historical precedents as a potential guide, when we've had in midterm a transition of secretaries of defense, the quickest it's occurred is under a week. So if you look at what happened with Secretary Gates, I think it was about three days. Secretary Perry was under a week. And so as we're -- as we're thinking about the timing, right, it could be potentially that fast.

But at the end of the day -- and I want to be very, very clear about this -- it's up to the Senate to take as long a time as -- as they need. But there's historical precedent for under a week.

Q: Okay.

And then the other question was, I think you mentioned that there were briefings that had been going on and -- from the Joint Staff and from OSD regarding SECDEF responsibilities. And I was a little bit confused whether you said those were -- had been done for Esper or for Spencer, or for both --

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure.

Q: -- because it seems like they both –- (inaudible).

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure, I think that’s fair. So -- so when the announcement came about Secretary Shanahan stepping out of the role and Secretary Esper would fill that role, I think if you look back at the clock it took about a week. When we did the transition between Secretary Shanahan and Secretary Mattis, it was about nine days.

And so with -- with the Shanahan-Esper transition, all of those briefings occurred within that week.

Because we have, obviously, more time now, we just spread over the same set of content over a longer period, because when we did the Shanahan-Esper transition, we effectively just pulled Secretary Esper out of his role with the Army. And Secretary Spencer is conducting his duty as the secretary of the Navy now, concurrently with getting his briefings. And so we had the opportunity to spread them out over a longer period of time. But it's the same content.

ASST. TO SEC. HOFFMAN: Sir.

Q: Jamie McIntyre with the Washington Examiner.

Two quick questions.

So, one is -- so while Norquist is serving -- performing the duties of the deputy, how come -- and I understand that the clock is paused once the nomination is submitted. But what about -- doesn't he come under the Vacancies Act?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure.

So he does, but he -- he actually only comes under the Vacancies Act when the deputy secretary position became vacant, which was when Secretary Shanahan resigned -- was it? -- two or three weeks ago. And so, there's a lot more runway to fill the deputy role because that clock didn't start until June.

Q: And my other quick question is, so who's going to be serving as secretary of the Navy while Spencer is --

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure.

So by operational law, the under secretary of the Navy, Mr. Modly, will move in to performing the duties of the secretary of the Navy.

ASST. TO SEC. HOFFMAN: Jeff.

Q: Thank you.

You had mentioned you expect a nomination shortly. I understand the White House controls the timing, but can you elaborate on "shortly"? Does that mean this week? Does that mean today?

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: I don't think it'll be today.

Q: Hi. I'm Andrew Clevenger with CQ.

And if -- I know you -- it's up to the Senate, but if something goes awry with Secretary Esper's confirmation, then the clock is back ticking.

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: It would -- it would restart, yep.

Q: What happens if it expires?

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure.

So if we find ourselves in that scenario, we will come back here and talk to you about what plan we're going to put in place to address that issue.

My understanding is should something happen and the clock runs out, you have someone who effectively then just operates as performing the duties of the secretary of defense.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: Actually, that's --

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Clean me up,(inaudible).

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: -- essentially correct. If -- we're speaking very hypothetically, now -- if Secretary Esper's nomination is withdrawn, returned by the Senate or rejected by the whole Senate, then a new 210-day clock starts.

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Well, that's better.

(Laughter.)

All right. So we have 210 days, then, to reset.

(Laughter.)

Okay.

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: So if that does happen, we will come back to you and we'll talk about what we're going to do.

Q: Sir, can I ask a follow-up on that? Is that under the -- like, why - why does the clock restart?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: It's under the Vacancies Act -- the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, as amended.

Q: Right, but the Vacancies Act stipulates that if a nomination is then sent back. Like, that's explicit text --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: Right. That's in -- I essentially quoted from the Vacancies Act. I didn't put the commas in, but I tried to quote.

(Laughter.)

Q: Hi. So can you just clarify on Norquist? So when he gets -- when his nomination comes, he reverts back to his position as comptroller, right?

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yeah.

Q: So who then performs the duties of DEPSECDEF --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: Yes, yes.

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: So, good question.

We've got a couple of different ways that we'll solve for that. Again, I'll come back to you and tell you how we plan on doing that. And it's somewhat dependent on when that event occurs in time.

There's more flexibility in terms of who we put in to serve as the potential deputy role. And so there's a couple different names, but we'll back-fill David with someone.

Q: (inaudible) can you say which one of those possibilities, just so we understand --

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure.

I mean, so you could have Secretary Spencer move from the -- his role as acting SECDEF to then become the acting deputy secretary of defense.

You could go in the next line of succession. So it would jump, because we don't have a confirmed secretary of the Air Force, to the first OSD person, which would be Ellen Lord. Or we could just pick someone outside of the order of succession.

There's more flexibility.

Q: So it would be Ellen Lord, not John Rood?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes. My understanding is -- and correct me if I'm wrong, here, but --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: Well -- well, that's right. Under the order of precedence, Ellen Lord is the most senior of the under secretaries of defense.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Quickly, has acting Secretary Esper started making office calls with senators? Is that something he’s going to wait until he's officially nominated? In terms of preparation, is that something he has started already? Is that something he’s going to start getting into once he's fully nominated?

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Oh, sure. No. He's conducting office calls.

Q: He already has? And in terms of preparations, that's already under way, right? Okay.

Q: (inaudible), this is Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg News.

Is Esper updating his 2017 ethics agreement? And how extensive will it be? The Army one is about a page and a paragraph.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO: So as part of the nomination process, the Office of Government Ethics will require him to sign another ethics agreement.

We don't have that yet. And when we do, it'll be provided to the White House and then, if he's nominated, to the Senate.

Q: Are you working with him on that right now, in terms of Raytheon type issues?

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO: My office works with all Senate-confirmed nominees.

Q: Okay. And he's got a screening agreement that he's -- he's already submitted.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO: He's had a screening arrangement in place since he first took office as the secretary of the Army. When he assumed his new duties, you know, we had him sign a new screening arrangement to reflect, you know, the staff that he's going to be working with, you know, right now, as acting secretary.

Q: Fair enough, thanks.

(CROSSTALK)

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO: Sure, yeah.

And it -- for everybody, I can explain the difference between a screening arrangement and an ethics agreement.

So the ethics agreement is worked out during the nomination process. And it -- and it sets forth the legal obligations that he has, both under the ethics laws as well as the president's ethics pledge.

But the screening arrangement -- think of the screening arrangement as internal guidance to the staff that operationalizes -- we like to say it operationalizes the ethics agreement.

So I can have an ethics agreement with a lot of legal terminology, but what I need, as a senior official, is staff that can implement that. So these screening arrangements tell the staff how to implement: what am I screening for and who do I go to if I need help?

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: -- agreement, I just want to ask that. Is this the -- is this -- this the June 24th --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO: The screening arrangement?

QUESTION: Yeah.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, it's been posted in the OSD FOIA Reading Room this morning as well, if anyone wants to take a look at it.

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: But I -- I just want to foot-stomp one of the points, I think it's -- it's important to make.

So, just to be clear, so Dr. Esper has not requested, sought, directed or received any waiver, authorization, modification or exception to the recusal obligations in -- he committed in his ethics agreement from 2017.

So his ethic -- his ethics agreement that he had in place when he became the secretary of the Army is still the ethics agreement he has. He's going to have to update his ethics agreement as part of his package to become the secretary of defense.

So that -- that hasn't changed, there's no waiver sought after.

What additional guidance was provided is we had to update his -- his -- his screening arrangement because he moved roles, right? So the -- the screening arrangement is an internal document that directs the staff: If something comes, this is how you have to treat it. That was the June 2019 document.

And so I think there was a bit of confusion perhaps, Tony, when folks read your -- read -- read the article where you -- one could conflate the two. That wasn't intentional.

So there's been no change at all to his ethics agreement. We had to update his screening arrangement because there's a new staff, there's new issues and they need to be taught how to manage his recusals.

I personally led the team with -- with -- with (Senior Defense Official Two) in a session right before Secretary Esper took over, walking everyone through his recusal and walking everyone through how to handle his screening arrangement before he came into the role.

QUESTION: Tony Bertuca, Inside Defense.

Another succession question. I wanted to ask not about the CNO but the CMO. You've got Mrs. Hershman there who's been performing those duties for a while. Where is she in terms of her Vacancies Act clock?

Because -- are –- it was our understanding that her nomination needed to get moving because that office is supposed to be the third-ranking official of the department.

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: I -- I think -- yeah, it expired on --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: Her -- her period to be acting expired at midnight on Friday, so Mrs. Hershman is now performing the duties of the CMO. She's no longer the acting CMO.

QUESTION: And then what's the clock? That is another --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: Well, the -- performing the duties is a construct that doesn't occur under the Vacancies Act. The official who's performing the duties isn't acting, doesn't have any of the protocol status of an acting official, and in some cases doesn't have all of the authorities of the acting official.

An acting official has all of the authorities of the office. Someone who's performing the duties might not.

(CROSSTALK)

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWINING: Well, just to, again, get at the subtext of the question, too, we've got, sort of, the CMO, the deputy, obviously the secretary, the secretary of the Air Force and the secretary of the Army. All of them are an active process where, you know, their -- their paperwork is being actively reviewed at the White House. We would expect all of those names to come out of the system here over the next, you know, process.

We're obviously prioritizing the secretary and the deputy, but then sequentially we'll expect them to come out.

ASST. TO SEC. HOFFMAN: All right, we’ll do one more question.

QUESTION: (Inaudible), Stars and Stripes.

Can you just go over the procedural, like why there's a difference between when Shanahan was in that role as the acting and would've been able to undergo this confirmation process and why Esper isn't?

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure.

So as the deputy secretary of defense, under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the deputy secretary has effectively all the same authorities as the secretary. And because Secretary Shanahan was confirmed as the deputy, the deputy enjoyed all the authorities that the secretary had.

Secretary Esper was confirmed as secretary of the Army, which doesn't have all the authorities of the deputy and by virtue of the secretary, and so that's why we're treating it differently.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: Could I amplify --

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yeah, go ahead and clean up --

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: What Eric said is absolutely correct. Let me just amplify one point.

Under 10 U.S. Code, Section 132(b), bravo, the deputy secretary shall become the acting secretary when the secretary's position is vacant. …

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Good point.

SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL ONE: … That is outside the Vacancies Act, and so Secretary Shanahan as the deputy secretary was serving pursuant to that provision as acting secretary, not under the Vacancies Act.

ASST. TO SEC. HOFFMAN: Now we'll do one more, from Phil.

Q: Just really quick, just I think this is probably clear, but piggybacking on the authorities question, is there any difference between the authorities that Shanahan had as the deputy -- was acting -- than Secretary Esper has or that Spencer would have as people coming from a different part of the department?

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure, I appreciate the question.

No. So all same authorities for all three individuals.

Q: Okay, are there any authorities they don't have that a confirmed secretary would have?

CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: No.

ASST. TO SEC. HOFFMAN: All right, guys. Thank you very much.

Embargo is lifted. I'll hang around with Colonel Halfhill if there's any follow-up questions and we can get back to you guys. Thank you.