Jul 23, 2019

Mark Esper becomes first Senate-confirmed defense secretary in 204 days

Mark Esper. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Senate voted 90 to 8 on Tuesday to confirm Mark Esper as the new secretary of defense.

Why it matters: The Trump administration went a record 204 days without a Senate-confirmed defense secretary, following the resignation of James Mattis in December and the withdrawal of acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan last month.

  • Throughout that period, the U.S. has seen a rising threat of military conflict in both Iran and Venezuela, with Iranian tensions in particular reaching new heights over the last few weeks in the Strait of Hormuz.
  • The U.S. military also remains actively engaged in Syria and Afghanistan, in addition to providing arms sales and having troops deployed in dozens of other countries around the world.

What to know: Esper is a veteran of the Gulf War and served as Trump's acting Army secretary. He worked as a policy staffer on Capitol Hill and later as a lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon. During Esper's confirmation hearing, he declined to say that he would recuse himself from issues involving Raytheon after being grilled on his lobbying record by Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

  • Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, Esper was prevented from serving as acting defense secretary while engaged in the Senate confirmation process. He will now replace Richard Spencer, who is the Trump administration's third acting defense secretary this year, per AP.

Of note: Of the eight Democrats who voted against Esper's confirmation, five are running for president. That includes Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.). Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) did not vote.

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Scoop: Inside Trump's naval blockade obsession

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump has suggested to national security officials that the U.S. should station Navy ships along the Venezuelan coastline to prevent goods from coming in and out of the country, according to 5 current and former officials who have either directly heard the president discuss the idea or have been briefed on Trump's private comments.

Driving the news: Trump has been raising the idea of a naval blockade periodically for at least a year and a half, and as recently as several weeks ago, these officials said. They added that to their knowledge the Pentagon hasn't taken this extreme idea seriously, in part because senior officials believe it's impractical, has no legal basis and would suck resources from a Navy that is already stretched to counter China and Iran.

Go deeperArrowAug 18, 2019

Bernie Sanders says he regrets voting for Joe Biden's 1994 crime bill

On CNN's State of the Union Sunday, 2020 candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders said he regrets voting for a controversial 1994 crime bill authored by former Vice President Joe Biden.

Why it matters: The bill has become a point of contention in the Democratic primaries, with certain elements of the legislation — such as the "three-strikes" provision — credited with contributing to mass incarceration among communities of color. Sen. Cory Booker is among those who have brought the bill and Biden's voting record to the forefront of the debate, condemning the 1994 legislation as "awful" despite his "love" for the former vice president.

Go deeperArrowJul 28, 2019

4 big moments from Night 1 of the second Democratic debate

Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the absence of frontrunner Joe Biden, the first night of the second round of Democratic presidential debates on Tuesday saw former Rep. John Delaney, who is polling at less than 1%, assume the unlikely role of moderate foil to progressive heavyweights Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The big picture: CNN moderators largely (and predictably) framed the debate as whether Democrats are drifting too far to the left with policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal proposal and free college tuition. Those that expected Warren and Sanders to turn on one another were likely disappointed — the pair spent most of the night tag teaming moderates like Delaney, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and Rep. Tim Ryan, urging them to dream big on policy and "stop using Republican talking points."

Go deeperArrowJul 31, 2019