Eric Chewning, Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Defense
ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS JONATHAN HOFFMAN: Hi, everybody. All right, so just — we’re going to do a quick briefing similar to the one we did the other day. We’ll be on the record for the chief of staff, for Mr. Chewning, and then would ask that any of the responses from our — our legal counsel here are on background. Topic is just, we want to walk you through the timeline of — of the transition today, and what we’re expecting over the next week so that there’s no confusion and there’s clarity. And then we’re going to have some more information for you guys hopefully in the next 30 minutes to an hour with some statements and some other information. But we’re going to have Eric kick it off.
CHIEF OF ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ERIC CHEWNING: Yeah, sure. So good afternoon, everyone. I wanted to stop in and quickly provide you all with an update on the SecDef transition. Last week I told you we had a plan, and now I want to come in and inform you about our execution of that plan.
This morning, Acting Secretary Esper, Secretary Norquist, Secretary Spencer and Chairman Dunford conducted a handover session in anticipation of Acting Secretary Esper’s nomination going to the Senate this afternoon. At that time, Dr. Esper will cease — cease to serve as the acting secretary of defense, and will solely serve as secretary of the Army. As a result, as prescribed in Executive Order 13533 titled “Providing an Order of Succession within the Department of Defense” dated March 1, 2010, Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer will become acting secretary of defense. Secretary Spencer will have the full authority and responsibility of the secretary of defense at that time.
When this occurs, Dr. Esper will physically move to his office in — as the secretary of the Army, and Secretary Spencer will move into the Office of the Secretary of Defense. When this occurs, we’ll send a press release and message to the force. There will also be a photo opportunity for you all to see Secretary Spencer entering the office of the secretary of defense.
To ensure institutional continuity, the senior team supporting the Office of the Secretary will remain in place. This includes David Norquist, the under secretary of defense — comptroller, and chief financial officer, who will continue to perform the duties of the deputy secretary of defense; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford and Eric Chewning, the chief of staff for the Department of Defense.
We’ve been working closely with Senate leadership at Senate Armed Services Committee, and 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, and it is the prerogative of the Senate to take as long as they think is necessary to examine and confirm the nominee. Secretary Spencer’s prepared to remain in the role until there is a Senate-confirmed secretary of defense.
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 of defense and will, in deference to the Senate, step out of his role performing the duties of the deputy secretary of defense while his nomination is pending before the Senate.
Should this occur, we anticipate Secretary Spencer to move, effectively, from his role as acting secretary of defense to then perform the duties of the deputy secretary of defense while Mr. Norquist goes through the confirmation process. So think of Secretary Spencer as our — as our swing player as we work through the role.
Q: The acting secretary…
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: He’ll be performing the duties of the deputy. We are committed to transparency throughout this process. The American people deserve to know there’s only one secretary of defense, and that person is fully capable of defending the country and protecting our homeland.
Q: Eric, so the nomination has not been sent and received by the Senate yet as far as you know?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: I — I would expect it to occur within the hour.
Q: Within the hour? OK. And you will let us know how?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Mm-hmm, yes. I think we talked about it before. It goes to the clerk of the Senate, and then what we’ll do is, we’ll issue a press release. We’ll do a message to the force, and then we’ll make sure you all have the opportunity to see as we walk Secretary Spencer from the Navy into his office with — at the secretary of defense.
Q: At 3 o’clock, like we anticipated possibly?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: I mean, I’m always loathe to sort of commit other portions of the government to action. We’re — we’re in our plan, we’re templating on or about 3 o’clock. We’re positioned and ready to move, you know, as early as then. But we’ll see.
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: OK. Barbara?
Q: When do you notify NATO and the allies that this has happened?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure. So there is a contact plan that Secretary Rood and the team will place. That will occur concurrent with the release of the press statement and the message to the force.
Q: And I don’t — I know it may not be possible to answer this, but can you give us your best idea here at the moment. Between the clerk of the Senate receiving the nomination, which, as I understand it from you, is the actual moment he becomes acting secretary of defense, and you putting a press release out through your very busy computer system, what is the…
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: How much time elapses between — yeah.
Q: Yeah. I mean, this is really a problem that could be a quite significant period of time…
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: Barbara , so you guys, while you’re in here, should be getting an e-mail that has our statement and everything embargoed for release as soon as we get a phone call from the — from the Senate, announcing or alerting us that it’s — that the transition has — the transaction has been received, we will e-mail you guys. We’ll come around, we’ll let everybody know we’re going to do everything we can to inform everyone, all the media, as soon as humanly possible.
Q: And that’s the point at which you notify NATO and the allies?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: There is a contact plan that’ll begin at that point in time.
Q: Walk through some of the phone calls and contacts that need to be made…
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure.
Q: …with other countries, other militaries, coalitions, international organizations? Who needs to know this piece of information?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure. So what we do is it’s confirmed, essentially, through our embassy, through our counterparts and telling them, effectively, what we’re doing for the transition, how it’s going to work and then consistent with all the recommendations that we’ve provided to you all, about how that’ll operate, you know.
Secretary Spencer will move into the role until…
Q: So you just tell the embassies?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Our U.S. embassies contact their foreign counterparts.
Q: I see.
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: And, Barbara, just to be clear, like, we’ve gone over the whole what-is-going-to-happen in the briefing last week. So basically, those notifications at this point will be, “This has happened.” And so…
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: … it should be a very…
Q: I was just curious if you informed NATO specifically.
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: We’ll — through our — our representative in NATO…
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: … they’ll — yes, yes.
Q: I understand.
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: But I think — think about it this way.
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: It’s faster for us to tee up all of our embassies to notify their counterparts as opposed to our policy team…
Q: Got it.
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: … running a phone tree.
Q: Got it.
Q: Hi. Did I understand you correctly that there was a handover ceremony this morning?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Don’t think of it as a handover, think of it as a handover discussion where we got all the principals together in the morning to run the list of, currently, what’s taking place for operationally, what are the issues we expect to occur within the next couple of weeks, to — in the event that something needs to occur. So everybody’s baselined before we have to execute the transition plan.
Q: OK. So Secretary Spencer – as Navy secretary — was brought in to…
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yes.
Q: … the position essentially had to be up to speed this morning?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Right. Yes.
Q: OK. And then…
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: And this is on top of all the operational briefings he received over the past two weeks.
Q: OK. And then I think a lot of us were under the impression we were coming in here to talk about an ethics agreement with Secretary Esper, that there’s been some change. Was that just a mistake, or…
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Oh. So…
Q: … or is there something on that?
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: I think some people had questioned that as part of the process, Secretary Esper will be signing an updated ethics agreement. We can’t give that to you yet because the way our process works is, once the Senate has received his nomination, they notify OGE. OGE then will send over the ethics agreement. At that point, it will be posted on the OGE website. And you guys can pull it off of that.
We can have (inaudible) talk just very briefly. A topline hasn’t been released yet. We were hoping to come back, talk (inaudible) after it’s released, if there’s questions. But at the topline, can kind of tell you that it’s going to be generally very similar to the old one.
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yeah. I mean, what you’ll see that’s different is obviously, he had sold a lot of stock when he became secretary of the Army, so he doesn’t have that stock any more. So that won’t be a — that doesn’t need to be addressed in there.
Q: And you said that will be posted as soon — when his nomination goes to the Senate, you said?
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: As Eric said, we don’t control the other powers of government. But so it should be pretty quickly after that.
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: I mean, just so the mechanics are clear, there was an ethics agreement when he was secretary of the Army. We had to update the screening arrangement when he became the acting secretary of defense, so we could execute that existing ethics agreement, and then as part of his nomination package to be secretary of defense, there is a new ethics agreement that he had to fill out. So that’s what’s driving the new ethics agreement as part of that formal nomination package.
Q: I wonder — the last time I went through something similar – and by last time, I mean two weeks ago — there was a lot of controversy around Iran. And there was a meeting at the White House where I believe it was Secretary Shanahan and Secretary Esper were at the same meeting.
And I’m curious, if we have some sort of crisis along those lines, could there be a scenario where Secretary Esper would be sitting in on a meeting with Secretary Spencer at the White House? If there is, for example, another Iran crisis?
And then I wanted to ask the legal team, if I could, please, do you see a limitation in terms of how long — how many days remain in which the Department of Defense can be led by actings? And if so, what is the timeline as you see it?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: I could take the first one, and then I’m happy to (inaudible).
So I think there’s an important distinction between the transition to occur between Secretary Shanahan and Secretary Esper and the transition that’s taking place now.
The first is, the window of transition. So when Secretary Shanahan transitioned to Secretary Esper, we put in place about a week for that transition to occur. And it was a transition from acting to acting.
And as you mentioned, there were a variety of different operational things that were live or taking place. And so out of prudence, what we did is we effectively had — while Secretary Shanahan was the secretary of defense, Secretary Esper shadowed him to certain conversations so there wouldn’t have been any lost continuity in those sets of actions.
This is different, insomuch as Secretary Esper is stepping out of the role for a nomination, and then Secretary Spencer is assuming the role. And so Secretary Spencer — so if there is a meeting, Secretary Spencer will represent the Department of Defense as the secretary of defense.
Q: OK. The reason I ask though is because I’m curious if there are scenarios where, given — the assumption being that Secretary Esper will be confirmed, he would need to be informed or maybe be part of those meetings…
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure. I think as the…
Q: Is there any scenario like that?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: .. the subtext to your question is around sort of the continuity that would take — take place.
Q: That’s right.
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Chairman Dunford is a principal. Chairman Dunford is continuous between all of those actors and would be — would be a member who’s been a part of any conversation and any future conversation.
Q: OK, so to answer this really simply…
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Is no. That’s right.
Q: OK. And then if you could answer the sort of legally how long…
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Sure. There’s no time limitation as long as Secretary Esper’s nomination is pending before the Senate.
Q: I see. So from — so the clock essentially stops, if you will, once he was formally nominated?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yes.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: It will stop once he’s formally nominated.
Q: And does that apply also for the deputy secretary of defense? Because right now Norquist — has he been …
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: So — so Deputy Norquist hasn’t been formally nominated yet, but the deputy’s position was only vacated when Secretary Shanahan resigned. So the 210-day clock …
Q: Started then.
CHIEF OF ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN CHEWNING: … started then.
Q: So it started January — well …
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, it would’ve been…
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: … started June 25. Yeah.
Q: Could I follow — just up on that, please? If, for some reason, Secretary Esper is not confirmed, does the clock resume where it stopped or does it start again?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, we have a new 210 day clock.
Q: Thank you.
Q: So this is – this is kind of related to the succession, General Selva is supposed to retire on the thirty-first. Do you guys have any info of what’s going to happen if Hyten doesn’t get a confirmation hearing before then, or even if he does, if the Senate hasn’t voted by then, what happens there?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Appreciate the comment. We’re just going to limit today’s discussion to transitions within the — the Office of the Secretary. We can come back later and talk about what’s (inaudible) Joint Staff.
Q: For the Army, if Esper is confirmed and McCarthy as the under secretary would have to step up, would he be performing the duties of army secretary or acting army secretary?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: He’ll be the acting secretary.
Q: OK, because Esper has been confirmed for another position.
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: Correct and he’s the under secretary, and under the Vacancies Act, he’s the first assistant to the secretary.
Q: Roger, thank you.
Q: Does Secretary Spencer have any goals for his one week as defense secretary? (Laughter.)
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: We’ll let Secretary Spencer speak to that when he formally enters into the role, but I’d — just — just to look at the subtext, he’s — he’s going to be executing the secretary’s calendar as it currently stands and as discussed in our — in the handover session this morning, he will continue to execute the National Defense Strategy.
Q: Senator Warren put out a statement this morning saying that Secretary Esper did not want to extend his recusal commitment. Could you explain what that is and respond to her accusations?
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: (Inaudible), do you want to talk about that on background?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: Yeah, on background, I mean I think what she’s — what she’s saying is that, you know, he’s agreed to do everything that the law requires and that the law allows currently. So he has, you know, all of the obligations under the law and then also any process that would be available.
So I think what she — what she may be referring to is she want — she would like him to go beyond what the law requires and recuse, you know, I guess from anything for any reason. So I — I’m not going to respond to it because it’s for Secretary — Acting Secretary Esper to respond to, but I think that’s what she’s asking.
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: I think it — we’ll have a response for Senator Warren that will be provided to her in writing from the department shortly, but I think it’s …
Q: Yeah, could we get a copy of that?
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: Generally, our rule is if we have a letter to a member of Congress, to send a member of Congress, it is up to the Congressional office to make it available to the public. We — it’s a conversation just out of courtesy to them that we don’t release the letters.
Q: Is that today, you think?
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: I don’t know the answer to that.
Q: Just a follow up on that really quick. So he will be — not be recused if an ethics official signs off on it and if he can sit in meetings as well on — on things that …
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: I think the easiest way to think about the secretary’s recusals is he is doing everything required by law. I mean, there’s no waivers, nothing outside of law, everything that — everything that he’s required to do by law.
Q: His agreement says that — that if an official says that — or believes that the — it’s in the government’s interest to have him participate, they could seek a waiver …
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Which is — which is true for — for anybody. So it’s not just special to him, it’s the — it’s the standard — standard set of requirements for anybody.
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: And it’s defined in the law what the process is and the criteria and it — and it depends what part of the law you’re talking about because there’s — you know, different parts of the law apply over different periods of time, so you know, who that person is can change over time.
I think, you know, the key takeaway is with this screening arrangement, he has a process in place that his staff picks up on that early. A lot of other people would look at it. The screening arrangement directs the commanders to be referred to another appropriate official as a matter of course.
So only in the, you know, extreme, rare exception, you know, would we get to the point where that would even be considered and there’d be a lot of people involved, to include Dr. Esper, to see if it was even something that, you know, he thought was necessary.
Q: Can I just ask a clarification on what you answered Nancy a couple of minutes ago. So Esper is essentially — make sure I understand this, he is essentially, during this period of time, for lack of a better word, (inaudible) to anything — make sure I’m — anything in the secretary of defense’s office? He’s not — he doesn’t attend meetings …
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: No, think about — think of it as he — he’ll be serving as the secretary of the Army and there are issues in which — just as with Secretary Mattis and Secretary Shanahan, when you would need to consult with the secretary of the Army.
Q: Fine, so — so — so he will be aware of secretary of the Army issues.
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yep.
Q: Other than secretary of the Army issues, set those aside, during this timeframe he is blind — you don’t even back-brief him; you don’t brief him and keep him up to date?
In other words, does he have to walk back in, you know, one hour after he’s confirmed, appointed, and sworn in and get back up to speed because he knows nothing about what’s been going on?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure. I think the — the — the key distinction here would be that he’s not directing anything while he’s not serving as the acting secretary of defense. So there’s not an issue with him receiving information, just like there wouldn’t be an issue for us to brief service secretaries or anyone else, it’s just that he’s not directing …
Q: He’s not making decisions — OK, you briefly described what kind of — other than things involving the secretary of the Army position, what kinds of information and briefings and updates he will get about Defense Department matters, operational matters during the time he goes back to being secretary of the Army. What are you going to keep him up to date on?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yeah, I think it would depend on the duration in which he’s not acting as the — as the acting secretary of defense, the confirmed secretary of defense, right? So if the window of time we’re talking about here is a short window, you know, measured in a couple of days, then the — he’ll be relatively fresh against the concepts.
If — if it’s longer than that then he’ll — he would be — because he’d be picking up more and more of what the secretary of the Army’s calendar looked like, he would — by — in due course, run into topical briefings related to options.
So for example, we have NDS implementation forums within the department that’ll cover topics with both the service secretaries, the Joint Staff and OSD staff just as part of our calendar, right, that hit on things like digital modernization within the force, things we’re doing with respect to the China competition, that as the secretary of the Army he would be exposed to.
Q: OK. But you only know after the fact really — I’m interested in this. You only are going to know after the fact that it’s more than a couple of days. So starting from the minute he walks back into the secretary of the Army’s office, separate from secretary of the Army issues, does he get — does he continue to receive the same level of intelligence and operational briefings about what’s going on around the world as though he were secretary of defense? Because that’s receiving information, it’s not making decisions.
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yes. Right.
Q: What does he stay up-to-date on?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yes. So we’ll — he will stay up-to-date on operational topics.
Q: He’ll get the same briefings as a SECDEF?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: No, it won’t be the same briefings. But where there — as issues arise that he would need to be aware of, we’ll make sure that he’s aware of them as we work through it.
I think that the point here, the main takeaway is, we’re going to actively manage this given the scope of time that we’re talking about. And the answer looks differently if it’s a day or two, then it looks like if it’s several weeks.
Q: What about the intelligence briefing, if I could…
Q: I understand. Could I just ask about his intelligence briefings? Will he continue to get the same level from minute one of intelligence briefings that the secretary of defense would get?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: It will be a different — different levels because there are certain programs in which individuals are read on and read off.
Q: On the – on the Spencer thing – I just want to make sure I’m sure. Assuming Esper is confirmed, then Secretary Spencer goes back to being in the Navy, and then once Norquist is nominated, he goes to comptroller, Spencer becomes — performing the duties of deputy secretary of defense, correct?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sorry…
Q: I’m trying to make sure I understand the Spencer transition. So he’ll go — assuming Esper is confirmed, then Spencer goes back to Navy, then once Norquist is nominated and he goes back to comptroller, then Spencer becomes performing the duties of deputy secretary, is that right?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yes. It’s – think about it this way, right? So …
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yes. Spencer essentially is going to be working as the acting secretary of defense, Esper gets confirmed, he moves down — you know, maybe he sits as secretary of the navy for, like, you know, a short period of time. The nomination goes forward for Norquist, he moves over to act as a deputy.
Q: And then who — I should know this, but who becomes the Navy…
Q: Acting secretary?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Yes, Modly will be performing the duties of, because there still will be a confirmed secretary of the Navy. So Under Secretary Modly, right, will then move up to be performing the duties of the secretary of the Navy, because there’s still a confirmed secretary of the Navy.
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: And in the statement that we’re sending you guys, we have all this laid out again, in writing, so hopefully that will make it a little bit clearer. But – Tony?
Q: Can I ask Mr. Chewning, on the recusal issue, screening arrangement, recusal issue. Under the — can he discuss or is he prohibited from discussing with the Turks an alternate to the S-400, i.e. the Patriot? Because Raytheon makes a part of the Patriot. Is this a real-time example of something where he’s prohibited from dealing with?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Just so we’re clear on that, the relatedness — the issue around kind of the offer of the Patriot was something that pre-existed Secretary Esper’s time, right? And he recuses himself as it relates to particular matters relative to Raytheon. And so depending on the type of conversation, yes, he would need to recuse himself.
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: (Inaudible), was there anything else you wanted to add to that?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: No, that’s it. It’s just fact-dependent, Tony, and we look at, you know, each thing case-by-case. But the screening arrangement is there so that my office gets a call from Mr. Chewning, and I go down and talk to him. And we work through the facts and then provide a legal opinion.
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: Going to be last one.
Q: I want to go back to something you said earlier about how you guys are sort of managing given the sort of small, presumably, timeline. Are there decisions that you anticipate that you have sort of made sure that Secretary Spencer won’t have to make? That is, if there’s a discussion of troop deployments or something of that nature, is there going to be some sort of concerted effort to push some of those more, for lack of a better term, weightier decisions until there’s a confirmed secretary?
And also, if you could walk me through, you talked about this document that you’re going to distribute, who is part of putting that document together? And who will it be distributed to?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: Sure. So I think it’s very — just to be clear, when Secretary Spencer takes over as the acting secretary of defense, he has all the authorities.
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: So if there are any decisions like you’re describing comes up, Secretary Spencer can adjudicate against it as necessary. He will have all the legal authority.
Q: I understand he has legal authority, but given that you were talking about managing it, and that it’s expected to be a short period of time, do you anticipate a scenario — is there a plan in place, if you will, to sort of whenever possible leave decisions that are long-term consequence, if you will, for, presumably Secretary Esper, should he be confirmed?
CHIEF OF STAFF CHEWNING: So we’re — to be clear, we’re not going to presume it’s a short period of time. This could take as long as necessary. Secretary Spencer has all the authority necessary to do the job for as long as necessary to include any decisions that may come up during the window in time in which he’s the acting secretary of defense.
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: OK. Bye, guys. Thank you.
Q: Wait, I have — he was going to answer the document? I asked the lawyers about how the document was put together and who it was distributed to — in terms of whom?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: The screening arrangement?
SENIOR DEFENSE OFFICIAL: You know, we put together a screening arrangement for senior officials in conjunction with the senior officials and their staff. And then it’s typically provided to the chief of staff or somebody senior. And it’s distributed widely among the staff and the action officers that need to know that there’s recusal in place so that they, you know, are fully informed of the recusal obligations, they know how to reach my office.
And then we start taking phone calls and emails and just work it.
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: It’s important to remember that the screening arrangement does not in itself implement any part of waiver or grant any waiver. All it does is implement the ethics law, the ethics agreement, and the president’s ethics pledge, and how it is implemented within the office.
But it does not create, grant, or produce any type of waivers (inaudible) his direction to the staff.
ASST. TO THE SEC. HOFFMAN: All right, guys, we’ve got to go.