President Donald Trump’s choice of Pat Shanahan as permanent Defense secretary sets the stage for a Senate showdown on his rocky tenure as acting Pentagon chief — as well as Trump’s own stewardship of military affairs.
The confirmation process, which could begin within weeks, is likely to reignite questions about ethics and experience that have dogged the former Boeing executive, who was cleared last month of a Pentagon probe into his ties to his ex-employer. But it also is bound to renew deep disagreements over a host of Trump policies that Shanahan has accommodated, including the administration’s ban on transgender troops, use of military funds to build a border wall and saber rattling with Iran.
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The Senate Armed Services Committee, which will vet Shanahan, includes two Democratic presidential candidates — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand — giving them an opportunity to burnish their national security credentials.
“The bigger issues that will get raised are the policies of the administration,” said Arnold Punaro, a former staff director of the Senate panel, calling the process a “referendum” on Trump policies. “There is going to be some tough questions.”
The Senate panel, chaired by Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), has long been known for its bipartisan approach. But its members have had major differences with Shanahan and the administration more broadly in recent months.
Inhofe initially expressed opposition to Shanahan following the abrupt resignation in late December of then-Secretary Jim Mattis, who had broad bipartisan support and sometimes served as a brake on Trump’s impulses. The Oklahoma Republican has since urged Trump to nominate Shanahan, citing the critical need to have a permanent Pentagon leader.
Leading Democrats on the panel showed signs Thursday that they intend to go after Shanahan both personally and professionally, arguing he is unfit to succeed Mattis.
“I have been unimpressed by the lackluster testimony Shanahan provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee during recent hearings, and deeply concerned about his three decades in the corporate culture, which have undoubtedly shaped his limited perspective on national security issues,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said in a statement.
“Shanahan may be the least-qualified nominee for secretary of Defense that the Senate Armed Services Committee has considered during my time in the Senate,” added Blumenthal, who joined the chamber in 2011.
One major policy divide involves the administration’s expanding troop deployment to the U.S.-Mexico border. Shanahan has defended that policy, as well as Trump’s diversion of billions in defense spending to build a border wall.
At the same time, Shanahan expressed a rare note of uneasiness over the border mission during a hearing last week. He told the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee that the military needs to return to its core functions and thatPentagon brass has begun to ask, “How long will we be at the border?”
“For now, we haven’t degraded any readiness,” Shanahan told lawmakers. “But we really need to get back to our primary missions.”
One leading critic of the border policy has been the Armed Services panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who recently accused Trump’s administration of “treating the Pentagon as a piggy bank for his misguided domestic policy aims.”
Shanahan is also likely to face renewed scrutiny over the Pentagon’s ban barring many transgender troops from serving, a policy that just went into effect after a long court battle. Shanahan played a crucial role in its implementation, raising the ire of advocates for transgender rights.
“Shanahan’s group published a report that was based on falsehoods, was repudiated by retired chiefs of military medicine, and that withheld key Pentagon data that contradicted the ban’s rationale,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group, referring to a document the Pentagon prepared justifying the ban. “It is not a positive sign for national security when the defense secretary fails to tell the truth.”
Punaro said another likely flashpoint is sexual assault in the military, a serious concern among Democrats and Republican lawmakers and a signature issue for Gillibrand. It’s also a “moral and readiness crisis” for the Pentagon, two Republican members of the panel said Thursday.
“Sexual misconduct is a moral and readiness crisis that we must address head-on,” Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona and Thom Tillis of North Carolina said in a joint statement right after the Shanahan announcement, stressing that “more must be done to prevent misconduct, support victims and prosecute offenders.
Shanahan’s professional fitness for the job has also come under recent scrutiny, including concerns about his ties to his former employer, Boeing.
The Pentagon’s inspector general cleared Shanahan on April 25 of several allegations related to his former company, including questions about whether he had used his position to praise Boeing, trash its rival, Lockheed Martin, or pressure military leaders to buy Boeing aircraft. But senators will have an opportunity to press him on his ties to the aerospace giant and question whether a defense industry veteran is the right choice to lead the Pentagon.
Warren has warned against putting nominees with heavy industry experience into senior Pentagon positions. And in a statement on the findings of the inspector general probe, Reed noted that the report revealed “the wide swath of national security matters that acting Secretary Shanahan is barred from” because of his industry experience, “which strikes me as something the Senate needs to consider.”
As Mattis’ deputy secretary, Shanahan largely focused on internal management of the Pentagon, requiring a learning curve as he has familiarized himself with the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, the wider counterterrorism campaign and preparations to confront military threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Russia and China. That’s in contrast to Mattis, a retired four-star general who commanded Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan before overseeing both wars as head of U.S. Central Command.
“There was a clear distinction in portfolios and background between Mattis and Shanahan, so there was an immediate readjustment period as he came in as acting secretary,” said a recently departed Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Reed struck a similar tone in a brief statement Thursday: “This is a very different job than his previous position.”
Another question is how much influence Shanahan will have on Trump, who clearly values his loyalty.
“A major theme is likely to be whether Shanahan can be his own person and give Trump the best advice from a policy perspective and what is best for the U.S. at home and abroad,” Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said by email. “So, senators will probe him on whether he can be an independent voice.”
But he doubted that Democrats in the full Senate would be able to stop the nomination.
“My sense is the GOP will not deny Trump his choice heading into 2020, and it is hard to see how Dems peel off four GOP senators,” he said.