When Defense Secretary James Mattis announced last week that he would resign in protest, the retired four-star general envisioned a fairly long transition period. Mattis intended to stay on through the end of February, allowing Donald Trump time to nominate a successor, and the Senate time to evaluate him or her.
That was before the president learned by way of television what the Pentagon chief’s resignation letter said – at which point Trump directed another cabinet official to tell Mattis his last day is next week.
So, who’ll lead the massive Department of Defense in the new year? Pat Shanahan.
When it was first announced last spring, President Trump’s proposal for a new Space Force was resisted by the Pentagon and ridiculed by late-night comics who envisioned Luke Skywalker in the military. But it found a champion in Patrick M. Shanahan, the deputy secretary of defense who will soon become the Pentagon’s acting chief.
“We are not the Department of No,” Mr. Shanahan told Pentagon officials after Space Force was announced, arguing that it was a presidential priority and could help develop new military capabilities more quickly. “There is a vision, and it makes sense.”
Now, Mr. Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has been thrust into the Pentagon’s top job at one of the department’s most tumultuous times in years.
It creates an unusual dynamic in which the Pentagon, at least temporarily, will be led by someone who has (a) no military experience; (b) no foreign policy experience; and (c) a private-sector background that’s sparked some awkward questions.
In fact, the Daily Beast reported over the holiday weekend that while Shanahan has reportedly recused himself from decisions regarding his former employers, Boeing “has enjoyed a chain of successes winning major competitive contracts.”
On Dec. 21, Bloomberg reported that the Pentagon would request funding in the 2020 defense budget for a dozen upgraded F-15X fighters worth $1.2 billion. Boeing builds the 1970s-vintage, non-stealthy F-15 at its plant in St. Louis.
The Air Force for years has said it does not want more F-15s, instead preferring to order F-35 stealth fighters from Lockheed for around the same price as the F-15X, per plane. But the Pentagon reportedly overruled the Air Force and added the new Boeing fighters to the budget.
Shanahan “prodded” planners to include the planes, according to Bloomberg – this despite the requirement that Shanahan recuse himself from decisions involving Boeing.
That reporting hasn’t been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, though if Trump envisions Shanahan staying on in his acting role at the Pentagon, it’s a safe bet the questions would come up during any confirmation hearings.
On a related note, the former Boeing executive was already subjected to some Senate scrutiny when Trump tapped him for his current deputy secretary role. When the Senate Armed Services Committee considered his nomination, then-Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) described some of Shanahan’s answers as condescending and insulting.
The president insisted via Twitter over the weekend that Shanahan “will be great!” Given Trump’s track record on personnel matters, it’s hard to feel reassured by his vote of confidence.