Shanahan’s Bid to Become Permanent Defense Secretary in Doubt
WASHINGTON — Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan’s prospects to head the Pentagon are increasingly at risk as President Donald Trump holds off on picking him and an investigation continues into whether he’s showed favoritism toward Boeing Co., his former employer.
On Wednesday a key senator said he thinks the nomination — widely expected after former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis quit in December — may not happen at all.
“If he hasn’t done it until now — I’m not casting any accusations or even expressing how I personally feel — but if the president hasn’t done it by now, then apparently he’s not going to,” Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Wednesday. “That’s the only conclusion I can come to.”
Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, an Armed Services member, echoed Inhofe’s prediction that a Shanahan nomination may be unlikely at this point.
While Trump has praised Shanahan, he has also passed up opportunities to endorse him for defense chief, including during trips together over the last week to a tank factory in Ohio and to the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Shanahan, who is already the longest-serving acting defense secretary in U.S. history, could still be picked by the president. Inhofe — who heads the committee that would vote on the nomination and has said he would support Shanahan — may simply be prodding Trump to make a decision. “I do have one strong opinion,” he said, “and that is we’ve got to get a permanent secretary of defense.”
Unlike the taciturn Mattis, Shanahan has been outspoken in his loyalty to Trump on issues from the border wall to Syria policy. But the president, who likes his Cabinet members to convey strength, may not have been impressed by Shanahan’s testimony before two congressional committees this month.
Inhofe said Shanahan, who served as deputy to Mattis, tried to answer questions before his committee “in a thoughtful way, not wanting to make any blunders by overreacting” so he “was overly cautious from what his normal behavior would be.”
The Trump administration has faced criticism for two years over delays in sending nominations to the Senate, while the administration counters that the Senate has been slow to act on those it does send.
The problem is especially acute at the Pentagon, where the military faces an expanding Chinese presence in the South China Sea, continued Russian aggression in Ukraine and the challenges of managing U.S. deployments in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Standing on the tarmac of the West Palm Beach, Fla., airport on Friday during the Mar-a-Lago trip, Trump was asked whether he planned to nominate Shanahan for the job. He declined to answer, saying only that his acting Pentagon chief was a “great guy.” He went on to talk about his plans to name Stephen Moore, who wasn’t present, to the board of the Federal Reserve.
Shanahan has made clear he’d like the post.
“I think I can serve the department well,” Shanahan said in an interview Tuesday with Defense One. “I’ve spent nearly two years on the National Defense Strategy. I know the defense strategy, I know what it takes to see it though, and I think I can make a big impact in that area.”
Yet Shanahan appeared to struggle Tuesday when asked to defend Trump’s decision to shift $1 billion in Defense Department funding to help pay for the president’s border wall. He conceded the Pentagon’s action — made without seeking approval from the leaders of congressional defense committees — is likely to result in strict limits by Congress on such “reprogramming” of funds in the future.
“We said, ‘Here are the risks longer-term to the department’ and those risks were weighed,” Shanahan said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. “Given a legal order from the commander-in-chief, we are executing on that order.”
His potential nomination has also been plagued by bad timing, given his previous role as an executive at Boeing as the Chicago-based company faces scrutiny over the crash of two of its 737 Max passenger planes.
While Shanahan helped design the company’s approach to reusing established platforms like the older 737, he had moved to overseeing the company’s suppliers by the time the Max’s design was locked in. That won’t stop senators from pressing him on his role during a confirmation hearing.
Then there are questions about whether he has inappropriately voiced support for Boeing — or criticism of the No. 2 defense contractor’s rivals — since joining the Pentagon. That’s the subject of a Pentagon inspector general’s probe called for by an outside group, which cited reports by Politico and Bloomberg.
Shanahan, who has recused himself from decisions about Boeing contracts at the Pentagon, said he welcomes the investigation.
In an interview last month, Shanahan said he has tried to block out the political noise around his role.
“Let’s not worry about whether he’s a ‘yes man’ or a ‘no man’ but whether he’s a ‘can-do’ man,” Shanahan said of himself. “I just spend all my time getting stuff done.”
With assistance from Bill Faries, Margaret Talev and Tony Capaccio.
©2019 Bloomberg News
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