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After Months of Discord with White House, Pentagon Taps Key Deputies

After Months of Discord with White House, Pentagon Taps Key Deputies

The Trump administration on Thursday nominated six civilians to fill critical slots in the Defense Department’s leadership, positions which have been staffed since January by holdovers from the Obama administration.

The nominations come after months of hard-fought battles between Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the White House over staffing the Pentagon, and after the rejection of a list of names Mattis put forward that were nixed by Trump advisor Stephen Bannon, son-in-law and confidant Jared Kushner, and Mira Ricardel, who has been running the defense transition effort.

The most significant nomination is longtime Boeing executive Patrick M. Shanahan to be the Deputy Secretary of Defense, essentially the No. 2 civilian official at the Pentagon. If confirmed by the Senate, he would succeed Robert Work, a widely-respected Obama administration holdover that Mattis had asked to retain until a replacement could be found.

Shanahan, who has no previous experience working in the federal government, has been working on the commercial aircraft side of Boeing operations, but in the past served as vice president for both Boeing Missile Defense Systems and had a role in the company’s helicopter manufacturing division, where he oversaw several U.S. Army programs.

For the deputy job, “the administration really wanted someone with industry experience,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, national security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

One person with knowledge of the deliberations said that Mattis had wanted a deputy who could effectively argue policy differences at the White House and on Capitol Hill. But they pointed out that Trump defense transition head Mira Ricardel spent years as a Boeing executive, leading to some speculation that she pushed the Shanahan nomination.

Thursday’s nominations of David Norquist to serve as the Pentagon’s comptroller and Elaine McCusker as his deputy, originated with Mattis, the source said.

Though Trump has directed some barbs at the aerospace and defense giant — he criticized the cost of the new Air Force One — lately he has expressed more affinity for the firm. He ended a rally at a South Carolina Boeing manufacturing plant last month with “May God bless the United States of America, and God bless Boeing.”

Having a defense executive in the number-two position may help in some respects, said Barry Pavel, former senior White House and Pentagon official under Presidents Obama and George Bush. “The deputy position is traditionally one of the key positions liaising with defense industry,” so if he has no direct government or military experience, “someone coming out of the defense industry could be an advantage in terms of running the building.”

The tricky part, Pavel said, will be the day-to-running of the massive Pentagon bureaucracy.

“You’re at the top of a large organization with a hefty inbox and you have to learn quickly,” Pavel said. Shanahan’s ability to do so “depends on how quickly he’ll get up the learning curve.”

People close to Mattis had said he was frustrated with the blanket ban that the Trump administration placed on anyone associated with the “Never Trump” movement within the Republican national security establishment, which severely limited the pool of potential nominees. And Mattis in turn refused to accept some of the names White House staffers offered him.

In a statement on Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the nominees “were personally recommended by Secretary Mattis to the President for nomination.”

Thursday also saw the nomination of David Joel Trachtenberg, a former congressional staffer and defense official, as Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. 

Trachtenberg, a former House Armed Services Committee staffer and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy from 2001 to 2003, is currently President and CEO of Shortwaver Consulting, LLC, a national security consultancy.

Part of the slow roll out of nominees for the Pentagon harkens back to the failed nominations of  Vincent Viola for secretary of the Army and Philip Bilden for secretary of the Navy, after both pulled out of the running due to conflicts with their business interests. The Trump administration is now doing background vetting and financial disclosure reviews of all nominees, something that most administrations had done much earlier in their term.

Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer contributed to this report.

Updated March 17 1:14pm: A previous version of this article included a reference to Ambassador Anne Patterson, who was under consideration for a different position. 

Photo Credit: Department of Defense