President Trump intends to nominate acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan to remain in the top Pentagon job, the White House said Thursday, placing a relatively low-profile and soft-spoken former Boeing executive atop the military at a time of mounting tension abroad.
Shanahan has served as acting defense secretary since his predecessor, Jim Mattis, resigned late last year over policy differences with the president. Shanahan was recently cleared by the Defense Department inspector general of allegations that he was partial to his former employer while serving in the Pentagon’s No. 2 job under Mattis.
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,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement.
The announcement comes at a challenging time, when the Trump administration has been grappling with potential confrontations with Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. It marks a pointed reversal from an era when the president relied primarily on generals to craft military and foreign policy.
Before joining the Pentagon in 2017, Shanahan spent his career in the private sector with little foreign policy experience and no military background. But for more than 18 months, he served as deputy defense secretary, overseeing budgets, weaponry and technology, in addition to spearheading the drive for Trump’s Space Force.
Shanahan said in a statement that he was honored by Trump’s announcement.
“If confirmed by the Senate, I will continue the aggressive implementation of our National Defense Strategy,” he said. “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.”
Shanahan said the president informed him Thursday afternoon at the White House that he would be nominated.
“I called my mom,” Shanahan told reporters outside the Pentagon after the announcement. “She was super happy.”
Asked about the biggest challenge of the job, he said, “Balancing it all.”
“For me, it’s about practicing selective neglect so that we can stay focused on the future but not ignore the emerging, really important issues that pop up day-to-day that you don’t plan for,” he said.
Shanahan would oversee the armed forces as the military is seeking to wind down counterinsurgency wars, and is preparing for intensified competition with China and Russia and trying to shield itself from partisan acrimony surrounding the president’s use of the military on the southern border.
Not long after taking over as acting secretary in early January, Shanahan rolled out the 2020 defense budget, which seeks to reorient the military toward competition with Russia or China. But the budget proposal immediately faced blowback on Capitol Hill when Shanahan agreed with Trump’s decision to take as much as $6.1 billion from the Pentagon budget this year for a wall on the southern border and “backfill” the money in the 2020 budget request.
Lawmakers also balked at the administration’s inflation of the Pentagon’s war-fighting account in a bid to fund defense over domestic matters.
Shanahan would take over permanently from a defense secretary who resigned partly over decisions that Trump subsequently reversed, highlighting the challenges of working for a president who has displayed impulsive foreign policy decision-making. Late last year, Trump demanded that U.S. troops be withdrawn from Syria and that the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan be reduced.
The U.S. military is now planning to keep a residual contingent of troops in Syria and has not made any moves to execute a significant drawdown of forces in Afghanistan amid peace talks with the Taliban.
Critics have raised concerns about Shanahan’s ability or inclination to steer the president away from destructive decisions. In his resignation letter, Mattis, a widely respected retired Marine Corps general who built relationships in Washington over four decades in uniform, cited his disagreement with Trump’s skeptical view of traditional defense alliances.
Since he took over on Jan. 1, Shanahan has sought to continue the approach Mattis staked out, regularly voicing support for the U.S. partnership with NATO and other allies. But he appears less inclined than his predecessor to challenge the president on significant strategic military policy moves.
Asked during his first formal news conference at the Pentagon whether he would be prepared to tell the president no if necessary, Shanahan responded diplomatically. “I’m always prepared to give the president feedback,” he said.
So far, Shanahan has largely kept his head down, probably foreshadowing a lower-profile role for the defense secretary in the administration. He has not traveled abroad as much as Mattis did, and he has rarely taken the lead on big foreign policy or military announcements, particularly with regard to nations such as North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. Instead, he has spent much of his time in the top defense post fielding curveballs from the White House regarding a national emergency declaration on the southern border and the use of Defense Department funds for the border wall the president promised would be built.
In Mattis, Trump selected the rare defense secretary who spent his career in the military and proved willing to throw around the weight of his stature and buck other presidential advisers if he felt that to be necessary. In Shanahan, the president has found much the opposite — a corporate warrior who has trained his sights internally on the Pentagon and succeeded in speaking the president’s business language, but who so far has found himself outmatched by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton in Washington connections and foreign policy experience.
The result is a Pentagon leader who, if confirmed, is likely to continue focusing on restructuring the military as the new defense strategy calls for paying more attention to great-power rivalry and placing less emphasis on counterinsurgency.
During his first news conference as acting secretary, Shanahan said he would not be traveling as much as Mattis did and would focus his time on fixing some of the “seams” he noticed in the Pentagon bureaucracy, where many officials for years have hoped for a business-oriented manager who could reform a problematic procurement process.
He said he would not change the strategy that Mattis had set out. “No change to the priorities,” Shanahan said at the time. “No change to the strategy. It’s really, ‘Go faster on the implementation and execution.’ ”
The son of a U.S. Army veteran who served in Vietnam and later became a police officer, Shanahan grew up in Washington state and studied engineering and business at the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined Boeing in 1986 and spent more than three decades with the aerospace and defense company, where he managed commercial airline and defense programs. Among them were the 787 Dreamliner, the company’s missile defense systems and rotorcraft including the vertical-takeoff-and-landing Osprey, and the Apache and Chinook helicopters.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.