Lone Republican leaves Marines without confirmed leader for first time in over a century

A decorated officer gesturing as he speaks into a microphone outdoors next to a lectern with a U.S. Marine logo.
Gen. Eric Smith speaks Monday at a Washington ceremony for outgoing U.S. Marine Corps Commandant David Berger. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) is holding up Smith’s promotion to officially lead the Corps amid a disagreement with the Defense Department’s abortion policy.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)
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The U.S. Marine Corps is without a confirmed leader for the first time in a century as Gen. David Berger stepped down as commandant on Monday and a Republican senator is blocking approval of his successor.

Berger took over as the 38th commandant in July 2019, and is required to leave the job after four years. Gen. Eric Smith, assistant commandant, has been nominated to be the next leader, but will serve in an acting capacity because he hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate.

Under the law, Smith can be acting commandant, but can’t do anything that would presume his confirmation. As a result, he can’t move into the main residence or the commandant’s office, or issue any formal commandant’s planning guidance, which is traditional for a new leader. He has the authority to implement new policies on the Corps’ budget and personnel decisions such as training.


Smith is the first of what could be many top-level military officers held up for promotions by Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.). Tuberville has stalled all nominations for senior military jobs because he disagrees with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III’s decision to have the Defense Department pay for travel when a service member leave their state to get an abortion or other reproductive care. Abortion is now illegal in Alabama.

Speaking at a ceremony at the Marine Barracks in Washington, just down the street from Capitol Hill, Austin and Berger called on the Senate to take action.

“We need the Senate to do their job so that we can have a sitting commandant that’s appointed and confirmed. We need that house to be occupied,” said Berger, with a nod to the commandant’s quarters at the edge of the parade field.

San Diego’s Marine Corps Recruit Depot, the service’s first purpose-built base, was part of an early-century military boom that changed the city.

Nov. 26, 2021

Austin and other Pentagon officials have pressed the Senate to move forward, saying that delays are already affecting more than 200 military officers and many key leaders.

“You know, it’s been more than a century since the U.S. Marine Corps has operated without a Senate-confirmed commandant,” Austin said at the ceremony.

With the requirement that Berger step down this month, the Marine Corps becomes the first branch of the military go without a confirmed leader due to Tuberville’s hold on nominations. The Army, Navy and Air Force are all expected to face delays later this year, as could the nomination of the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


The current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, is to leave his job at the end of September. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chief of the Air Force, has been nominated to replace Milley, and is scheduled to go before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his hearing on Tuesday.

Tuberville’s hold, however, is also affecting scores of one-, two- and three-star officers who are assigned to new commands but can’t move on. It also affects their families, who usually relocate over the summer to their new military communities so school-age children can settle in before fall.

“Smooth and timely transitions of confirmed leadership are central to the defense of the United States and to the full strength of the most powerful fighting force in history,” Austin said. “Stable and orderly leadership transitions are also vital to maintaining our unmatched network of allies and partners. And they’re crucial for our military readiness.”

Smith hit the thorny issue head-on at Monday’s ceremony, saying he wanted to get one thing out fast.

“If you’re saying, ‘What am I supposed to call you?’ ACMC. That is my title, and one that I’m proud of,” said Smith, using the shorthand for his assistant commandant role.

But he quickly added, “to make sure that there is no confusion — all orders, directives and guidance which were in effect this morning remain in effect, unless I direct otherwise. Further guidance to the force will follow.”


A girl was found at Camp Pendleton weeks after she had been reported missing, according to her family, who alleges she was raped by a Marine on the military base north of San Diego.

July 8, 2023

Sabrina Singh, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Monday that as of Friday, 265 senior officers’ promotions have been held up by Tuberville, and that number could leap to 650 by the end of the year if the issue isn’t resolved. She noted that in more than 100 cases, officers — like Smith — would be forced to do two jobs at the same time because no one can move up.

She said the Pentagon is asking officers to delay planned retirements and stay on, while in other cases officers are doing more senior-ranking jobs for lower pay.

The last time the Corps was led by an acting commandant was over 112 years ago. After Maj. Gen. George Elliott reached the required retirement age in November 1910 and left the commandant’s office, Col. William Biddle served as acting commandant until he was promoted to major general and became commandant in February 1911.

Berger, the outgoing commandant, is a native of Woodbine, Md. He graduated from Tulane University and was commissioned in 1981, going on to command at every level and do tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During his tenure as commandant, he spearheaded a broad campaign to improve the Marine Corps’ ability to fight amphibious wars in the Pacific after years of battling in the Middle East. The plan was lauded by many in the Pentagon and Congress as crucial to prepare the Marines for potential conflict with China.

Smith, who was a career infantry officer, is a highly decorated Marine who served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, including time in Fallujah and Ramadi during heavy combat in 2004 and 2005 after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.


He later became senior military advisor to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, and in 2019 took over as deputy commandant for combat development.