President Trump will nominate Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive and the No. 2 civilian official at the Pentagon, as his defense secretary, the White House announced Thursday.
“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 said in a statement. “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 marks the beginning of the end of Shanahan’s tenure as the longest-serving acting defense secretary. Shanahan was elevated from deputy defense secretary in December after then-Secretary Jim Mattis resigned in protest. His five months at the helm has been marked by uncertainty and shifting rumors about his nomination, exacerbated by a Defense Department Inspector General investigation into allegations that he sought preferential treatment for his former employer, Boeing, at the expense of rival Lockheed Martin.
Late last month, the IG released a report clearing Shanahan, and his nomination was expected to follow. “We determined that Mr. Shanahan fully complied with his ethics agreements and his ethical obligations regarding Boeing and its competitors,” investigators found.
“I am honored by today’s announcement of President Trump’s intent to nominate,” Shanahan said in a statement. “If confirmed by the Senate, I will continue the aggressive implementation of our National Defense Strategy. I remain committed to modernizing the force so our remarkable Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines have everything they need to keep our military lethal and our country safe.”
Still, Shanahan’s path forward remains murky.
How quickly he will be confirmed is an open question. The Senate Armed Services Committee, which is responsible for shepherding his nomination, has a packed calendar in the coming weeks, making it unlikely that Shanahan will get a hearing before a prominent international security conference at the end of May typically attended by the U.S. defense secretary. Although Shanahan has denied that the “acting” in front of his title has hampered his credibility to speak on behalf of the Defense Department, critics have suggested that it has diminished his clout both abroad and within the administration.
Minutes after the White House announced President Trump’s intention to nominate Shanahan, critics pounced.
“Although Patrick Shanahan was cleared of lobbying directly for Boeing, as Secretary of Defense he will be making policy decisions that will impact on the fortunes of his former company,” William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, said in an email. “That is in itself a potential conflict of interest.”
It is also not clear whether Shanahan will continue to serve as acting secretary while going through the confirmation process, although legally he is allowed to do so. Nominees are typically cloistered from the media during their confirmation; it is possible that the White House could choose to put another acting official in the top post while Shanahan’s confirmation moves along.
Shanahan may face some challenges on Capitol Hill as well. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, publicly mused to reporters that he did not expect Trump to name Shanahan to the post permanently, and criticized him for lacking the “humility” that he said was Mattis’s finest quality. Inhofe later walked back the remarks, but it remains an open question how receptive the committee will be to Shanahan. His previous appearances before the committee, including one in his capacity as acting secretary, have been rocky performances. The influential former chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., publicly rebuked Shanahan during his confirmation hearing to be deputy secretary of defense, and threatened to block his nomination. As acting secretary, Shanahan drew the scorn of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in February over the administration’s Syria policy.
Still, Inhofe and Graham are both allies of the president and it is seen as unlikely on the Hill that they will put up any serious opposition to Shanahan.
Trump struggled to find a permanent replacement who was both politically palatable to the Senate, jumpy about his administration’s foreign policy in the wake of Mattis’s departure, and willing to take the job. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, whom some in Congress championed as a candidate to replace Mattis, announced in March that she would resign on May 31. Veterans Affairs chief Robert Wilke was also reportedly in the mix, but he was seen as an unlikely pick.
Some Pentagon officials have speculated that it was not a matter of “if” but “when” Shanahan was eventually tapped — perhaps by default. In recent months, he began to publicly pitch himself for the job, telling Defense One in March that “of course” he wanted to hold the post permanently.
But the dubious legality of Shanahan’s lengthy tenure continued to raise eyebrows even as Trump told reporters that “I sort of like ‘acting’” because “it gives me more flexibility.” The White House remained mum on whether Trump would pick the engineer — even as Shanahan made multiple trips on Air Force One and garnered public praise from the president.
Shanahan will find himself in the spotlight, having to defend the Trump administration’s fiscal 2020 budget request, as well as ongoing controversy surrounding the administration’s foreign policy and its use of U.S. troops on the southern border in support of immigration authorities. Shanahan also continues to struggle to explain to skeptical lawmakers why the DOD should establish a Space Force, a sixth branch of the military desired by Trump.
A career businessman, Shanahan wants to make his stamp on the Pentagon by providing cyber, space, and missile capability that “changes our warfighting doctrine.” He also talks about making lasting reforms “to military healthcare, information technology, logistics, procurement” and putting in place “a cadre of leaders in place that think about great power competition [with China and Russia] fundamentally differently.”
Seen as a capable technocrat, Shanahan earned the reputation as a “fix-it” man at Boeing for his role in getting the 787 Dreamliner program back on track, which was plagued by problems in its early years. But he has also been dogged by allegations of bias towards his old employer, at times reportedly using the first person plural “we” to refer to Boeing while working for the Pentagon. Shanahan has denied he is biased against Lockheed Martin, insisting that “I am biased towards performance.”
Critics also question Shanahan’s independence from a president who has demanded loyalty over frank advice from senior advisors. “We are not the ‘Department of No,’” he told Pentagon officials after the announcement of Trump’s proposal for a new Space Force was announced. Allies have fiercely disputed the notion that Shanahan is a “yes-man.”
“He’s a total straight shooter, transparent, maybe to a fault, in a highly political world,” said Beverly Wyse, a former Boeing executive who worked alongside Shanahan.
His foreign policy experience has also come under scrutiny. Prior to Mattis’s departure, Shanahan viewed himself as the Pentagon’s chief operating officer, working behind the scenes, aside from a few high-profile issues. He was also responsible for making sure the military was executing the National Defense Strategy, which retooled the military’s focus from counterterrorism to great power competition with countries like China and Russia. “I like making things work, and work well. I’m an industrialist,” Shanahan said in September during a speech at an Air Force Association conference.
“I’ve spent my life building large, complex machines with complicated supply chains at scale. I’m focused on performance, and I’m focused on making change at scale.”