Acting Defense secretary Patrick Shanahan remains President Donald Trump’s top pick to be the permanent head of the Pentagon, say multiple sources in Congress and the administration. But with questions about whether he will make the cut, the administration is left with a daunting question: Does anyone actually want the job?
Several Republicans on Capitol Hill tell CNN they’re concerned about Shanahan’s ability to get through Senate confirmation. There’s also a fear over a lack of willing alternatives for one of the most difficult Cabinet jobs. “It’s hard to find someone to take it,” one senior Republican in Congress has told CNN.
Shanahan is under investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general over possible ethics violations. A Boeing employee for more than three decades before joining the Pentagon in 2017 as Deputy Defense Secretary under then Defense Secretary James Mattis, Shanahan has been accused by a federal watchdog group of promoting his former company and disparaging its competitors internally.
Even before the investigation began last month, delaying Shanahan’s anticipated nomination for the permanent position, Republicans on the Hill were concerned about his fitness for the job. “He has not impressed anybody on the Hill,” said one Republican congressional aide said of Shanahan. “I’ve not heard a single person defend this pick.”
Given the lack of enthusiasm among key Republicans for Shanahan, a number of names have been floated as a permanent successor, including Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Missouri senator Jim Talent, Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, and Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry.
None have publicly expressed interest in the job, and there is rising concern among some Republicans on the Hill that none of the qualified alternatives actually want the job.
A spokesman for Cotton, who has been a staunch ally of the President’s and advises him on the military and national security, declined to comment on whether the Arkansas Republican would be interested in the job. Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, told CNN the South Carolina senator has “zero interest in any Cabinet position.”
When asked if Thornberry, the top-ranking Republican on the House Armed Services, would consider being Defense Secretary, a spokesman pointed to the Texas congressman’s “scoff” at a similar question from a journalist last December. A spokesman for Esper also pointed to a December statement on the question from the Army secretary. “I’m very happy and privileged to be secretary of the Army,” he told the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.
A spokesperson for Talent, who served in the Senate from 2002 to 2007, did not reply to a request for comment.
Not only would a new nominee have less than two years guaranteed to do the job, there is also trepidation about taking on one of the most difficult Cabinet positions in a frequently dysfunctional administration.
Mattis’s clashes with President Trump over the decision to withdraw from Syria, which precipitated his resignation last year, offer a cautionary tale. So do the mixed messages from the administration on the withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan. A permanent Defense secretary could be turned out of office in 2021 if Trump loses re-election.
Despite him being under investigation, Shanahan’s lengthy tenure – at more than 100 days, he is the longest acting Defense secretary in history – and the dearth of willing alternatives has given him an air of inevitability around Washington.
Multiple administration officials tell CNN that Shanahan expects to be cleared by a current ethics investigation and expects to be nominated for the top job. And the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee says he expects the former Boeing executive, who has now served more than 100 days as the acting Pentagon chief, to get the nod.
“I want a permanent replacement,” Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma told CNN Thursday. “I want him. If it’s not going to be him, I want somebody else. But I want him right now. He’s the one that’s in mind. We’re long past the point where we should have an acting in that position.”
Since January, Trump has been leaning toward nominating him to take the job permanently, but the President refrained from doing so before the inspector general’s office began its investigation in March. Two administration officials claimed the initial delay was due to a backlog of other acting positions that needed permanent nominations. But a Republican aide on Capitol Hill says there were also concerns about getting enough support for Shanahan in the Senate.
“I think he’s going to have some trouble on the confirmation side,” said the aide.
Defense-focused Republicans in Washington have been worried for months that Shanahan’s problems go beyond potential ethical lapses. “He’s totally underwhelming,” said a former Pentagon official from the George W. Bush administration who remains active in defense policy. In multiple meetings with Shanahan, the person said he came away with the impression that Shanahan lacked key qualifications, particularly on the foreign policy front.
Members of Congress have also grumbled about Shanahan’s performance in hearings, saying he’s come across as not conversant with the details of defense policy. Two administration officials acknowledge that Shanahan has faced a learning curve when it comes to interacting with lawmakers.
But they add Shanahan, an engineer by training, has improved from his first hearings at the Senate and House Armed Services committees in March, to his most recent trip to Capitol Hill at Thursday’s Senate hearing on Space Force.
He still seemed to struggle at times on Thursday, particularly compared to his more seasoned colleagues who joined him on the panel.
Early on at this most recent hearing – which also featured Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Gen. John E. Hyten of Strategic Command, and Gen. James Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as witnesses – Chairman Inhofe posed what he called a “direct question” to Shanahan.
“How would establishing a Space Force help the United States reassert its warfighting dominance?” Inhofe asked.
Shanahan’s answer wasn’t exactly direct. “The fix – I think what you’re really speaking to is: how do we expand that margin?” he began. “Our proposal addresses all of the changes that are occurring simultaneously in space. And maybe just to set up the answer, these are the significant changes we have to address. The environment is contested, we are about to modernize – for the first time in about 30 years, modernize the Department.”
As Shanahan went on, Inhofe interjected, “Yes, quickly now,” prompting the defense chief to cut the answer short so the chairman could ask a similar question to Wilson. “I do think that there is an opportunity to align defense space programs in a Space Force underneath the Air Force, including acquisition. And I think that that alignment will help,” said Wilson succinctly.
“Okay,” Inhofe said. “That’s a good answer.”
But Inhofe denied he had any concerns about Shanahan’s performance. “Better than he did the first hearing he attended,” he told CNN after the hearing. “So I thought he did a very good job, answered the questions correctly. Didn’t make any obvious mistakes.”