The Senate appears likely to confirm Patrick Shanahan as secretary of Defense, barring an unforeseen and damaging disclosure — but not before senators pose some pointed questions of the nominee.
The White House announced on Thursday evening that President Donald Trump intends to nominate Shanahan to run the Pentagon. Shanahan has served as acting secretary since Jan. 1, when James Mattis, the Defense Department’s former boss, quit.
Shahahan, 56, served for more than 30 years as an executive at the Boeing Co. before he became deputy secretary of Defense in June 2017.
Critics are likely to raise questions, first and foremost, about whether Shanahan has the experience to run the U.S. military.
“This is a very different job than his previous position,” Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on Senate Armed Services, said in a statement. “Serving as Secretary of Defense is an immense task and I look forward to hearing directly from the Acting Secretary during the confirmation process.”
His ties to Boeing, too, have come under scrutiny and they may continue to be a major topic during his confirmation process. Still, he received a boost last month when the Pentagon inspector general cleared him in an investigation into whether, as a Defense Department official, he had improperly favored the company.
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During his tenure as deputy secretary and acting secretary, Shanahan has led the way in forcing the military services to shift focus from almost exclusively fighting terrorists since 9/11 to increasingly preparing for possible conflict with Russia or China.
That has meant emphasizing more spending on new technologies such as artificial intelligence. He has worked hard, too, to make a greater percentage of military aircraft battle-ready.
He has also strenuously advocated several Trump policies that many Democrats do not support and that may loom large in his confirmation. These include the proposed new military service known as a Space Force and related organizations. And Shanahan has been a stalwart defender of Trump’s use of U.S. soldiers and defense dollars to address immigration on the southern border.
What’s more, Shanahan drew fire just this week from Reed for not briefing lawmakers in a timely manner on intelligence reports of mounting Iranian threats in the Persian Gulf and movements of U.S. military assets and troops in response.
The critics appear unlikely to derail Shanahan’s nomination, and many senators who pose tough questions to the nominee may ultimately vote to confirm him anyway.
Republicans, for their part, are likely to fall smartly in line behind the nominee. Sen. James M. Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who leads Armed Services and who will preside over the confirmation hearing, applauded the president’s choice in a statement Thursday.
“We need a confirmed leader at the Department and, after working with him closely over the last few months, I welcome his selection,” Inhofe said. “I look forward to talking with him at his confirmation hearing about how we can work together to implement the National Defense Strategy and care for our service members, veterans and military families.”
Inhofe has shifted his public take on Shanahan. In remarks to reporters in February, he was not supportive of the acting secretary. Inhofe expressed doubt that Trump would nominate Shanahan, and he said Shanahan lacked Mattis’ humility.
Another Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said in a statement Thursday that Shanahan “has demonstrated to me his detailed understanding that a strong, modern, and well-trained military is essential in a dangerous and complex world. I hope and expect that he will advocate for defense policies that lead from the front, not from behind. I also hope and expect he will make it clear to America’s adversaries that we mean what we say, and that our allies see us as a reliable partner.”
Shanahan, in a statement of his own Thursday, said he was honored by the president’s nomination.
“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.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had tweeted news of Shanahan’s coming nomination earlier Thursday, saying Shahahan has shown in the first four months of 2019 that he is “beyond qualified” to be defense secretary.
Shanahan, a mechanical engineer by training, worked closely on Boeing’s Dreamliner jet and a number of missile defense ventures, including the ill-fated Airborne Laser, a project that was ultimately canceled as infeasible. He has escaped any connection to the company’s troubled development of the 737 Max 8 jets, two of which recently crashed.
His tenure as acting secretary has not been without controversy. The inspector general’s investigation into Shanahan’s ties with his former employer arose after media reports claimed he had badmouthed competitor Lockheed Martin Corp. and its signature fighter jet, the F-35.
A Senate Armed Services lawyer and the staff of Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren also forwarded to the IG complaints they had received about Shanahan and Boeing.
The investigation likely delayed his nomination by weeks, as the White House was reluctant to move forward on a candidate with a cloud of suspicion hanging over him.
The probe, along with the Pentagon’s fiscal 2020 budget submission, rekindled the rivalry between Lockheed and Boeing, two of the world’s largest defense contractors. The Pentagon requested $1.1 billion to buy eight F-15EXs, an updated version of an older fighter made by Boeing. At the same time, the Air Force slashed its planned buy of F-35s, a newer model of jet, by two dozen over the next five years.
This drew criticism from five GOP senators whose home states are tied to the F-35s, either with facilities where they are manufactured and assembled or with installations where they will be based.
In February, after the administration’s budget was released, Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, Susan Collins of Maine, Marco Rubio of Florida and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska wrote to Trump, urging him to fully fund the purchase of more F-35s.
It is not clear that these senators’ concerns about Shanahan’s support for the shift of funds from Lockheed Martin to Boeing would cause them to vote against his confirmation. But if this or any other group of five Republican senators were to vote against Shanahan, and if they were joined by all Democrats, it would be enough to scuttle his nomination.