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Trump's acting Pentagon chief faces new ethics probe

Team Trump didn't need another ethics mess, but it nevertheless appears to have one.
The Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, Arlington County, Virginia.
The Pentagon, the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense, Arlington County, Virginia.

When Defense Secretary James Mattis announced his resignation in December, the retired four-star general envisioned a fairly long transition period. As regular readers know, the then-Pentagon chief 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 ahead of a confirmation vote.

At least, that was the plan. Eventually, Trump, who didn't read Mattis' page-and-a-half resignation letter, learned from television what the secretary had written -- at which point the president directed another cabinet official to tell Mattis he'd have to leave before the new year began. The smooth transition the White House promised wouldn't exist because Mattis hurt Trump's feelings.

Three months later, the president still hasn't nominated a new Defense secretary. The acting Pentagon chief, Patrick Shanahan is the longest acting Defense secretary in American history.

And while that raises a series of difficult questions about the president's approach to governance, a new and related problem has risen to the fore.

The Pentagon's inspector general has formally opened an investigation into a watchdog group's allegations that acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has used his office to promote his former employer, Boeing Co.Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed an ethics complaint with the Pentagon's inspector general a week ago, alleging that Shanahan has appeared to make statements promoting Boeing and disparaging competitors, such as Lockheed Martin.Shanahan, who was traveling with President Donald Trump to Ohio on Wednesday, spent more than 30 years at Boeing, leading programs for commercial planes and missile defense systems.

This follows a Politico report from January, which alleged that Shanahan, before becoming acting secretary, used his previous DOD post to boost his former employer and disparage Boeing's competitors in high-level Pentagon meetings.

The article added, "The remarks raise questions among ethics experts about whether Shanahan, intentionally or not, is putting his finger on the scale when it comes to Pentagon priorities. They also call new attention to a recent decision by the Pentagon to request new Boeing fighters that the Air Force has said it does not want -- a request that Bloomberg has reported came after 'prodding' from Shanahan."

Team Trump didn't need another ethics mess, but it nevertheless appears to have one.

Indeed, circling back to our earlier coverage, the ethics probe into Shanahan comes on the heels of federal prosecutors presenting evidence to a grand jury on Ryan Zinke, Trump's former Interior secretary.

Around the same time, we learned new details about Alex Acosta, Trump's Labor secretary, who allegedly broke the law while shielding a politically connected sex trafficker. It came against a backdrop in which Matt Whitaker, whom the president tapped to briefly lead the Justice Department, was accused of giving false congressional testimony while under oath.

About a year ago, NBC News published a list of Trump administration figures accused of crossing ethical and/or legal lines, and the list wasn’t at all short. The president himself, of course, is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation and is accused of ignoring ethics rules, but the list also included familiar controversies involving former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, former HHS Secretary Tom Price, former regulatory adviser Carl Icahn, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, former CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.

That wasn’t an exhaustive list. As we discussed at the time, there have been related controversies surrounding Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former VA Secretary David Shulkin.

While we’re at it, let’s also not overlook controversies surrounding Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and former FEMA Director Brock Long.

Now, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is facing an ethics probe.

Remember in 2016 when voters were told a vote for Hillary Clinton would be a vote for years’ worth of exhausting investigations and scandals?