McCain warns Trump over staffing Pentagon with defence industry insiders

John McCain, chairman of the Senate's armed services committee, said he was troubled by the number of Defence Department nominees drawn from the defence industry.
John McCain, chairman of the Senate's armed services committee, said he was troubled by the number of Defence Department nominees drawn from the defence industry. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator John McCain has warned President Donald Trump against nominating any more defence industry insiders to top Pentagon posts, as his committee questioned an executive from Lockheed Martin Corp about potential conflicts of interest.

Concern over the close relationship between the Pentagon and arms manufacturers has existed for decades but appears to have intensified under Trump. He has drawn scrutiny for filling posts throughout his government with high-ranking executives. The latest example was his naming this week of former pharmaceutical executive and lobbyist Alex Azar to become Health and Human Services secretary.

McCain, chairman of the Senate's armed services committee, said he was troubled by the number of Defence Department nominees drawn from the defence industry.

He said he would oppose any more such nominations after John Rood, Trump's pick for the Pentagon's No. 3 job, who appeared before the committee on Thursday.

"From this point forward, I will not support any further nominees with that background," McCain said in a statement.

Rood ran into trouble during the hearing over his nomination to become undersecretary of defence for policy. As a Lockheed senior vice-president, Rood's job is to expand the company's international business.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren pressed him to say if he would recuse himself from discussions with US allies that could benefit Lockheed, the largest US defence contractor with business in 70 countries.

Rood said he did not intend to participate in talks about the sale of Lockheed products but did not give the "yes or no"reply sought by Warren, triggering a charged exchange with the committee.

McCain joined Warren in demanding a direct answer and warned Rood that otherwise, he was "going to have trouble getting through this committee".

McCain told Rood to submit his response in writing "because obviously you are ducking the answer here". The uproar came a day after the Senate confirmed Trump's choice for Army secretary, Mark Esper, who was a top executive at Raytheon, another US defence industry giant. He committed to recusing himself from matters tied to Raytheon.

Trump's Pentagon also has officials who previously worked at Boeing and Textron Systems.

US arms manufacturers like Raytheon, whose shares have risen more than 30 per cent since December, are expected to benefit in the coming year from an increase in defence spending.

The Pentagon says it has 38 unfilled positions for civilian defence leadership roles that require Senate confirmation, and at least 23 nominees whose names have already been submitted to the Senate.

It was unclear from McCain's remarks whether he would oppose any of the already-announced nominees, although he seemed to be warning about future Pentagon picks.