Senators rushed to confirm the No. 2 Marine Corps leader, who will lead the service while the No. 1 Marine remains hospitalized following a medical emergency.
The Senate voted Thursday to confirm Lt. Gen. Christopher Mahoney as the assistant commandant, usually the second-in-command role in the Marine Corps. But because the Marine commandant, Gen. Eric Smith, has been in the hospital after reportedly experiencing a heart attack on Sunday, Mahoney also will perform the duties of commandant for the time being.
That means Marine Corps leadership is back to where it was before September, with the assistant commandant juggling the top two jobs in the Marine Corps at once.
After Smith’s hospitalization, Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl had been performing the duties of commandant, without an assistant commandant and without an official replacement in his usual job of deputy commandant for combat development and integration.
On Thursday, after confirming the Navy and Air Force chiefs by roll-call vote, the Senate confirmed Mahoney through a roll-call vote, with 86 voting in favor and none voting against the Marine’s confirmation.
The Corps hasn’t had both a commandant and an assistant commandant since July 10, when Commandant Gen. David Berger retired, leaving Smith in charge as the assistant commandant. Even after Smith was confirmed as commandant by individual vote Sept. 21, Mahoney’s confirmation remained in Senate limbo.
That’s because since February Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, has refused to confirm senior military nominees through unanimous consent, in protest of a Pentagon policy covering time off and travel expenses for service members who travel out of state for abortions.
Tuberville has argued that the military’s leadership gaps aren’t his fault and that it’s on the Pentagon to reverse its abortion policy or the Senate Democrats to hold individual roll-call votes on nominees. Democratic leaders estimated in September it would take 100 days of nothing but holding votes 8 hours a day to confirm what were then 273 nominees. The number of nominees has since grown to 378.
Smith, 58, said Sept. 6 while wearing both the assistant commandant and acting commandant hats that he had been sleeping approximately five hours a night, keeping a schedule that was “not sustainable.”
“I don’t mind breaking my own back,” Smith said. “It’s just, I have to make good decisions.”
Smith said Friday, days before his hospitalization, that officially becoming commandant hadn’t diminished his workload, because he still had two full-time jobs.
Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, on Tuesday accused Tuberville of contributing to Smith’s medical issue by holding up on military confirmations.
“One of the reasons, I think contributed to his condition was he was doing two jobs at once,” Reed told Politico. “I’ve read where he was working from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. As a result, if he had, as is normal, an assistant, he could switch off.”
Asked by Marine Corps Times for comment on Reed’s remarks, Steven Stafford, a spokesman for Tuberville, said via email on Thursday, “Coach is praying for a swift recovery.”
Tuberville, a former college football coach, often goes by Coach.
Tuberville was more blunt about Reed’s comments in a conversation with reporters on Thursday.
“Come on, give me a break,” he said, according to a video posted to X, formerly known as Twitter, by CBS reporter Alan He. “This guy is going to work 18-20 hours a day no matter what. That’s what we do. I did that for years.”
On Tuesday night, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, announced he would move forward with the individual nominations for the chief of naval operations, the Air Force chief of staff and Mahoney.
The following night, Republican Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska — both of whom served in the military — spent more than four hours attempting to bring up for a vote 61 of the 378 pending nominations stalled by Tuberville, calling it an issue of national security and common sense.
“We are punishing [these officers] for what all of us here believe is a very bad policy at the Department of Defense,” Ernst said. “But it’s a policy they have absolutely nothing to do with.”
Tuberville objected to quick consideration of every one.
“My hold is on unanimous consent, not the individuals,” Tuberville wrote on X. “They can be voted on one at a time...just like always.”
On Thursday, Tuberville joined the other 85 senators in voting to confirm Mahoney in the roll-call vote.
Who’s in charge of the Marines?
Smith is now in stable condition but remains in a Washington hospital as he recovers, the Marine Corps said Wednesday.
The leadership gap that came with Smith’s hospitalization arose at an already turbulent moment for the U.S. military, which has deployed troops and resources to the Mediterranean in an effort to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from spilling over into the rest of the Middle East.
The 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit is in the region after leaving early from an exercise in Kuwait, although the Marine Corps has declined to provide specifics about the unit’s location.
Heckl was put in charge after Smith’s medical emergency because he was the most senior officer at Marine Corps headquarters, the Corps previously said.
Mahoney, 58, will pin on a fourth star Friday morning in a ceremony at the Pentagon, Marine spokesman Maj. Jim Stenger told Marine Corps Times.
The White House picked Mahoney in July for the assistant commandant job. Mahoney, callsign “Moe,” is a career aviator who has flown more than 5,000 hours, in the A-6, F-5, F-18 and F-35, according to his official bio and spokesman Maj. Kevin Stephensen.
Most recently, he served as the deputy commandant for programs and resources, the fiscal director of the Marine Corps. In that role, Mahoney defended Force Design 2030, the revamp that has attracted criticism from some retired Marines.
“In the Marine Corps I grew up in for the last 35 years, internal disagreements stay internal,” Mahoney told a crowd with dozens of retired Marine leaders in November 2022.
In July, the White House tapped Maj. Gen. James Adams III to replace Mahoney, but Adams’ nomination has been caught up in Tuberville’s hold. The current assistant deputy commandant for programs and resources is Marine veteran Edward Gardiner, who has helped manage the Corps’ budgeting process for more than a decade.
Gardiner will be leading programs and resources in an acting capacity upon Mahoney’s promotion, Stenger confirmed to Marine Corps Times.
Military Times reporter Leo Shane contributed reporting.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Thursday with information from Marine spokesman Maj. Jim Stenger.
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.