Trump finally taps Shanahan for Pentagon chief

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON — More than 100 days since Patrick Shanahan assumed the role of acting secretary of defense, the White House announced today that President Trump will nominate the former Boeing executive to permanently fill the position.

“Based upon his outstanding Service to the country and his demonstrated ability to lead, President Trump intends to nominate Patrick M. Shanahan to the Secretary of Defense,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a tweet. “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.”

The nomination, which appears set to move easily through Congress now that it has the support of a key senator, will end the longest gap in history for a confirmed Pentagon chief.

Patrick Shanahan, the recently appointed secretary of defense. (Photo: Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who had earlier expressed reservations about Shanahan, appears to have dropped his opposition in the effort to have a permanent secretary. Inhofe recently said he expected Trump to nominate Shanahan, and he would be in favor of such a move.

“If the White House nominates Patrick Shanahan, I would welcome his nomination,” Inhofe told Yahoo News last week in an emailed statement.“For more than 100 days, we’ve had an acting Secretary of Defense. That is too long. America needs a Senate-confirmed Secretary of Defense and the ‘acting’ title only makes the job more difficult when dealing with our allies, adversaries and Washington bureaucracy.”

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan with President Trump in the Oval Office, Feb. 19, 2019. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Inhofe had as recently as February expressed skepticism that Trump would nominate Shanahan, and appeared lukewarm at best over the prospect of Shanahan taking the job. The senator told reporters that the acting secretary lacks the “humility” of James Mattis, who resigned from the top Pentagon post in December to protest Trump’s announced decision to withdraw troops from Syria. Shanahan served as Mattis’s deputy.

“Senator Inhofe has said he would support Shanahan’s nomination and that he thinks he will be confirmed if nominated,” a Senate Armed Services Committee spokesperson told Yahoo News before the White House announcement. “His big priority here is getting someone in the role as a permanent secretary.”

The support of the Armed Services Committee chairman is usually essential in shepherding a nomination for defense secretary through a committee vote and on to the full Senate. There, a Republican majority gives Trump’s pick a likely shot at confirmation.

Even though some Republican senators reportedly still harbor doubts about Shanahan’s suitability as defense secretary, Inhofe’s support is likely to make the difference, according to a Senate staffer. “If Senator Inhofe gets on board, then he’s probably in pretty good shape,” the staffer said. “Senator Inhofe will really hold the key to whether he gets confirmed or not.”

Speculation that Trump would nominate Shanahan intensified after the Defense Department inspector general cleared the acting secretary of wrongdoing related to allegations that he promoted the interests of his former employer of 30 years, Boeing, after moving to the Pentagon. “I was expecting the nomination almost immediately upon the release of the IG report,” said Wesley Hallman, senior vice president at the National Defense Industrial Association.

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Although that didn’t happen, Hallman said he still expected Trump to nominate Shanahan “just because of the buzz coming out of the Senate.” With the White House announcement, Shanahan’s prospects for confirmation look good, said Hallman, who previously worked as an Air Force liaison to Congress.

“I haven’t seen any Republican come out hard against Shanahan,” Hallman said. “With Inhofe indicating that he is supportive of both the nomination and a confirmation, I think that he’s already done that spadework to believe that’ll go through on Republican votes, if required.”

Shanahan’s prospects might have been worse had Inhofe’s predecessor as committee chairman, the late Sen. John McCain, still held the job. Under McCain’s chairmanship, Shanahan endured “a rough confirmation process” for the deputy secretary job in 2017, a Senate staffer said.

McCain was particularly troubled by Shanahan’s initial equivocation on whether he was in favor of the United States giving military support to help Ukraine fight Russia-backed separatists. “He’s the only nomination I’ve ever seen have to turn in three versions of his advance policy questions before he finally cleared muster,” the staffer said.

McCain was also unenthusiastic about the prospect of a career defense industry executive moving to a senior job in the Pentagon. “I don’t know that Senator Inhofe will care to the extent that Senator McCain did about industry ties and things like that,” the Senate staffer said. “If Senator McCain were up there, it’d be a different story,” Hallman said.

Sanders’s announcement laid to rest rumors that Trump would keep Shanahan in an acting capacity for the foreseeable future. The president has said in the past that having officials in acting roles gives him “more flexibility.” If Trump had taken that route with Shanahan, the result would be a leader in the Pentagon “who is still beholden to the whims of the White House instead of a strong advocate on behalf of his or her department,” Hallman said.

He cited as an example the Trump administration’s recent designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. “The professional uniform-wearers and the professional civilians within the Department of Defense … were broadly against that declaration,” but Shanahan “didn’t carry that water quite so strongly” as might have been expected, Hallman said, adding that there was speculation that Shanahan soft-pedaled the issue because he was “still interviewing for the job.”


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