Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 30, 2019.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 30, 2019. Dita Alangkara/AP

Still 'Acting' Shanahan Faces Test With China Face-off and USS McCain Scandal

Raising the stakes for the would-be SecDef, the White House has not yet sent formal nomination paperwork to the Senate.

Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan is walking a fine line.

The former Boeing official is on his first major international trip since being tapped to permanently take the top Defense post, visiting several security partners in Asia and attending a high-profile gathering of regional defense officials in Singapore. On Friday, he held a closely watched engagement with the Chinese minister of defense; on Saturday is expected to give a major policy speech outlining how the Pentagon is carrying out its strategy in the region.

But within twelve hours of landing on his first stop in the region, Shanahan found himself answering tough questions about a White House directive that the warship USS John McCain be “out of sight” during President Trump’s visit to Japan this week. The incident has been widely seen as politicizing the military — something Trump’s critics have argued is an ongoing feature of his presidency — and has reignited simmering questions about Shanahan’s leadership.

Now, Shanahan must soothe the outraged senators who will judge his fitness to serve as SecDef, even as he avoids explicitly criticizing Trump’s White House for issuing the directive. Raising the stakes for Shanahan, the White House still has not sent the necessary paperwork to the Senate that would formally nominate him.

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Shanahan’s first move was to deny any personal involvement in the controversial incident. “What I read this morning was the first time I’ve heard about it,” he told reporters traveling with him. “I never authorized...any action around the movement or activity regarding that ship.” He said he ordered his staff to conduct a “quick and exhaustive look” to see whether his front office had received emails about the plans. They found none, he said.

But although the effort to obscure the McCain was ultimately aborted, an official with U.S. Indo-Pacific Command did seek to carry out the directive, outlining plans in an email first reported by the Wall Street Journal. That puts the incident squarely in Shanahan’s purview. He has directed his chief of staff, Eric Chewning, to look into the matter more broadly, emphasizing that he has not launched a formal investigation.

And Shanahan has sought to register his disapproval of the incident — something that Senate lawmakers will almost certainly press him on during his confirmation hearing.

“I would never dishonor the memory of a great American patriot like Sen. McCain,” Shanahan said. “I would never disrespect the young men and women that crew that ship.“

Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who took over the seat vacated by Sen. John McCain after his death in 2018 and sits on the Armed Services Committee, called the incident “appalling” and called for an investigation. Democrats on the panel have expressed similar outrage. But the president, speaking on Thursday, defended the unknown White House official who issued the directive as “well-meaning.”

“They thought they were doing me a favor because they know I am not a fan of John McCain,” Trump said, adding that he was not aware of the order and would not have issued it himself.

Former defense officials say that the most appropriate way to investigate the incident would be through opening up an inspector general’s investigation — not an informal probe run through Shanahan’s own chief of staff.

“You assign an investigation to your Chief of Staff if you want a quick whitewash. You assign it to the IG if you want the facts. What’s Shanahan afraid of?” tweeted Michael Bromwich, a former Justice Department Inspector General.

A spokesman for Shanahan, Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, said that Shanahan that Chewning’s review is only the first step. “Once presented with the facts by his Chief of Staff, Secretary Shanahan will determine if an IG investigation is warranted,” Buccino said in a statement to Defense One.

Buccino said Chewning has been instructed to talk to the White House Military Liaison, the Seventh Fleet, the Chief of Naval Operations, and the commander of Indo-Pacific Command “to gather the facts.” Shanahan says he has not yet had any personal conversations with either the White House or the CNO, Adm. John Richardson.

According to the Wall Street Journal, an unknown Indo-Pacific Command official laid out plans for Trump’s visit that he said were the result of conversations between the White House Military Office and the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet. Listed as “number 3” on a list of directives, the official said that “U.S.S. John McCain needs to be out of sight.”

“Please confirm #3 will be satisfied,” the official wrote.

Trump has repeatedly attacked the late Arizona senator, both before and after his death. On the campaign trail, he called McCain — who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for over five years — ”not a war hero.” He has virulently criticized McCain’s “no” vote that sunk a key healthcare initiative during Trump’s first year in office. And he has complained that he was not thanked for giving McCain “the kind of funeral he wanted.”

Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., has already signaled his support for Shanahan. Still, the longest-serving acting defense secretary in U.S. history is likely to face a number of tough questions from the dais on Capitol Hill — once he receives the formal nomination. Critics have questioned whether Shanahan has inappropriately favored his old employer, Boeing, over rival Lockheed Martin — an inspector general investigation recently cleared him — and his independence from a president who has demanded loyalty over frank advice from senior advisors. “We are not the ‘Department of No,’” Shanahan told Pentagon officials after the announcement of Trump’s proposal for a new Space Force was announced.

The incident has raised a broader debate over Trump’s relationship to the military. The president has frequently delivered explicitly political speeches at military events, which critics say is a breakdown of the traditional civil-military divide that the Pentagon seeks to safeguard.

Asked by reporters on Friday if the officials involved in the McCain incident would be penalized, Shanahan deferred.

"Our business is to run military operations and not become politicized,” he said. “I’ll wait until I get a full explanation of the facts before I’ll pass judgment on the situation.”

“Our job is to run the military.”

The McCain scandal was not supposed to be Shanahan's biggest spotlight moment on his Asia trip. In Singapore, all eyes of the delegates at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue were on his brief meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on Friday and anticipating what the Pentagon leader will say in his Saturday morning speech. It will be the secretary's biggest stage yet, and delegates said they were eager to hear more specifics of Trump's Indo-Pacific strategy and Shanahan's "China, China, China" focus, which he uttered in January, and to see how tough he is willing to sound on issues like the South China Sea and Taiwan.

"I want to see where the red lines are," said Meia Nouwens, IISS research fellow for Chinese Defense Policy and Military Modernization.

The U.S-China relationship always is center stage at this meeting of Asia-Pacific defense ministers, but Nouwens and others here said they believe the rare participation of such a high-ranking Chinese official means Beijing wants to challenge its rival's portrayals of China as a regional bully and unwilling economic parter with the United States.

Wei is scheduled to deliver his speech on Sunday. 

Kevin Baron contributed to this report from Singapore.