WASHINGTON — The topic of U.S. President Donald Trump loomed over the confirmation hearing of his nominee for Air Force secretary, as Senate Democrats pressed the nominee to answer for a number of controversies involving the president.
Barbara Barrett, a former ambassador to Finland and the former Aerospace Corp. chairwoman, attempted to reassure lawmakers who voiced concerns about the Trump administration’s transfer of funding from military construction projects to the U.S.-Mexico border wall, as well as an incident involving Air Force personnel stays at the president’s Turnberry resort in Scotland.
But she also made it clear during her Sept. 12 hearing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee that she would not publicly go against the president’s policies.
This week, the Air Force ordered Air Mobility Command to review its guidance on how lodging and accommodations are selected during international travel after a C-17 crew stayed at Turnberry in March.
In an exchange with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Barrett agreed to provide a complete account of Air Force expenditures at Trump-branded properties. However, she stopped short of saying that taxpayer funds should be prohibited from going toward Trump-owned businesses like Turnberry.
"It seems that we should have generic rules and regulations that look to the best value and best acquisition [practices], and those rules should be enforced equally,” Barrett said.
"Well, will you commit to issuing a servicewide policy to prohibit all Air Force personnel from using Trump properties for military travel whenever operationally feasible?” Blumenthal countered. “You and I discussed the appearance [of impropriety], wholly apart from the reality of the president profiting from Department of Defense expenditures at properties he owns.”
Ultimately, Barrett agreed to review Defense Department policies on lodging and accommodations, but she repeated that rules should be applied evenly, without targeting parties that may profit from a particular business.
“They should not be specifically to any particular owner,” she said. “If you were a shareholder in a company that owns hotels, should that [also] be excluded from military housing or military involvement?”
During a second exchange earlier in the hearing, Barrett came under fire for the administration’s transfer of $3.6 billion from military construction to the border wall.
As a result of that decision, construction of an $85 million facility at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, was delayed, noted Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. In addition, current MQ-9 Reaper student pilots “are resorting to using duct tape to patch holes in the walls and ceilings of their facilities” and are forced to train in an unclassified environment due to the poor infrastructure, he continued.
Barrett responded that she hopes the project can be funded through other means, but stood by the administration’s decision.
“The priority remains very high for that project, as I understand it,” she said. “I’ve been on the outside, so [the decision] is not something I was a participant in, but I do believe that the priorities haven’t changed and that would be something that would be looked to for funding … and I would be attentive to that as secretary if confirmed.”
Trump announced in May that he would tap Barrett for the top Air Force job, an appointment that was celebrated by both outgoing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who advocated for Barrett to get the job after her departure, and her friend Sen. Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican best known for becoming the first female pilot to fly in combat.
Despite some tough questions by Democrats, Barrett is expected to be confirmed by the Senate for the job.
Once approved as Air Force secretary, Barrett is likely to take on a dual-hat role as the first civilian leader of the Space Force once the new service branch is formally established. Both the House and Senate put forth different plans to stand up a Space Force (or Space Corps, as the House Armed Services Committee called it), but agree to keep it within the Department of the Air Force with the Air Force secretary at the helm.
“If confirmed, standing up a Space Force will be a key imperative. I think we need a Space Force. In fact, in my opinion, a domain-specific service to organize, train and equip space forces is overdue,” Barrett said in her opening comments.
Barrett also expressed support for growing the Air Force, although she acknowledged that she is unsure whether an increase to 386 squadrons is the best path forward.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.