President Donald Trump plans to nominate acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan to be the Pentagon’s permanent chief after months of uncertainty since the abrupt resignation of Jim Mattis, the White House announced Thursday.
The announcement came two weeks after a Pentagon inspector general report cleared the former Boeing executive of allegations he had given preferential treatment to his former employer, one of the military’s biggest contractors.
Story Continued Below
“Based upon his outstanding service to the Country and his demonstrated ability to lead, President Trump intends to nominate Patrick M. Shanahan to be the Secretary of Defense,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote on Twitter. “Acting Secretary Shanahan has proven over the last several months that he is beyond qualified to lead the Department of Defense and he will continue to do an excellent job.”
Shanahan, 56, has filled the position on an acting basis since Mattis resigned in December amid mounting policy disagreements with the commander in chief, including Trump’s surprise announcement that he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.That means the Defense Department has lacked a permanent, Senate-confirmed leader even as the United States’ national security challenges escalated — including administration warnings of potential threats from Iran and rumblings of possible military intervention in Venezuela.
Shanahan has since been publicly auditioning for the job and proving to bea loyal soldier by backing Trump’s Syria withdrawal, the controversial decision to deploy troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and attempts to raid Pentagon accounts to pay for his signature border wall.
As the longest serving acting Defense secretary in Pentagon history, Shanahan has also shepherded high-profile initiatives popular with Trump such as the president’s proposal to create a separate military Space Force and push for a ban on transgender troops.
But he has been under a cloud over his ties to Boeing, a company where he worked for 31 years. A Pentagon inspector general’s report issued April 25 concluded he did not violate any rules governing conflicts of interest as the deputy secretary and now as the acting Pentagon chief.
Shanahan is prohibitedfrom involving himself in any Pentagon decisions involving the aerospace giant. He told lawmakers he welcomed the investigation after an independent watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, demanded the probe in March.
But Shanahancould face a bumpy road to Senate confirmation. While Trump has expressed confidence in his Pentagon tenure, Shanahan’s relations with Congress have been tenuous at times.
His relationship with lawmakers got off to a rocky start during his confirmation hearing, when then-Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain threatened to jam up Shanahan’s nomination for not giving senators straightforward answers. In a testy session, the Arizona Republican called some of his responses “insulting” and “condescending.” and McCain also expressed wariness about Shanahan’s and other nominees’ defense industry backgrounds.
Shanahan has also ruffled the feathers of some other defense hawks on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and other lawmakers confronted Shanahan in Munich this year over Trump’s plans to withdraw troops from Syria, which the South Carolina senator reportedly slammed as “the dumbest f—ing idea I’ve ever heard.”
Shanahan was also chastised by Senate Democrats, who accused him of withholding details on what military construction programs could be deferred to fund Trump’s border wall under the national emergency.
Still, Shanahan has won over some skeptics during in his time as acting secretary.
Perhaps most importantly, he has gained an ally in Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has said he would support Shanahan if he were nominated. Inhofe’s committee will question Shanahan during his confirmation hearing.
Inhofe, a Trump ally who has consulted on the top Pentagon vacancy with the president, previously made waves when he said he didn’t believe Shanahan would be the pick, saying he wasn’t as humble as his former boss, Mattis.
Inhofe later walked back the comments and now says he’s smoothed things over.
“I spent a lot of time with him,” Inhofe said after February’s Munich Security Conference in Germany. “I do like him. He’s a nice guy and all that.”
House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), a critic of many of the Trump administration’s national security policies, has also said he would approve of Shanahan getting the full-time job, though he won’t have a formal say in the confirmation process.
Shanahan will have to convince lawmakers that he’s ready to tackle bigger challenges given his relatively limited policy experience compared with Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps general who served several tours commanding U.S. troops in the Middle East and other regions.
Democrats and Republicans are concerned about plans for withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, a potential troop pullout from Afghanistan, continued support for NATO allies, troop deployments to the U.S.-Mexico border, and efforts by the administration to use military construction and counternarcotics accounts to help fund Trump’s border wall.
So far, Shanahan has been “essentially just implementing the directives of his predecessors” rather than pushing initiatives of his own, argues Kelly Magsamen, a former Pentagon official from the Obama administration now at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Other observers say Shanahan is finding his groove after several months of learning on the job.
“My sense is that he’s found his footing and that he’s gotten more comfortable in the role,” said Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army lieutenant general with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Spoehr added that Shanahan’s industry background is useful in the Pentagon’s bureaucracy.
“There is no lack of people that have experience in … military leadership and strategy,” he said. “There is a lack, typically, of people that understand financial management, of performing to a budget, getting the most out of what you’re given.”
Shanahan oversaw the writing of the National Defense Strategy, which calls for reorienting the military toward future competition with Russia and China.
One area where Shanahan has differed from Mattis, however, is with an oft-repeated mantra of “China, China, China.” That contrasts with his predecessor’s generally equal emphasis on Russia and China as major threats to the United States and drivers of Pentagon strategy.
Shanahan has also been a lead player in some of the Pentagon’s most important efforts during the Trump administration — especially the proposed Space Force. He led the effort to write a Pentagon report released last August that concluded a new service was needed and has supported the need to prioritize space within the Defense Department.
“The big change is we woke up one day and space was contested,” Shanahan explained at a space policy forum in March. “And everything that we had designed … was no longer as capable as we thought.”
Inhofe and Smith say they’re open to a scaled-back proposal, though both leaders and their committees have been skeptical of the Pentagon’s plan.
In addition to overseeing the writing of the National Defense Strategy, Shanahan was also a main player in formulating the fiscal 2019 and 2020 defense budget proposals. The fiscal 2020 request is the first defense budget to reflect the new strategy.
Wesley Morgan, Jacqueline Klimas and Bryan Bender contributed to this report.