With Mattis Gone, the Pentagon Is Playing Musical Chairs

The secretary’s departure set off a chain reaction that will reshape Defense Department leadership.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan arrives for his first day in his new job at the Pentagon in Washington on Jan. 2. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan arrives for his first day in his new job at the Pentagon in Washington on Jan. 2. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

At 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, Defense Secretary James Mattis officially handed over authority to his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, with a phone call, setting off a chain reaction that is already reshaping the leadership of President Donald Trump’s Pentagon.

During his first working day as acting defense secretary, Shanahan attended an extraordinary, 95-minute cabinet meeting at the White House. Seated next to the president, Shanahan sat silently as Trump criticized the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, and slammed Mattis.

“What’s he done for me? How had he done in Afghanistan? Not too good,” Trump said. “As you know, President Obama fired him, and essentially so did I.”

It is not yet clear how Shanahan, who spent more than 30 years as a Boeing executive before taking on the job of deputy defense secretary in 2017, will do things differently than his predecessor, a retired U.S. Marine Corps general with decades of experience leading troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Shanahan had no government experience before assuming the position of the Pentagon’s No. 2 and has focused primarily on more administrative tasks, such as preparing to establish a Space Force and cutting costs from Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet program.

But the scene on Wednesday at the White House showed a new dynamic: A president with strong opinions about ending America’s wars, and a man at the helm of the Pentagon who may bow to his wishes. Shanahan is an engineer at heart, who will likely focus on “the nuts and bolts of management” instead of broad policy changes, said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute.

“I think that part of the appeal of having Shanahan in the Pentagon’s E ring is that the people at the White House have maximum latitude to pursue whatever policies they wish,” Thompson said.

Shanahan did give some clues as to his priorities during a meeting of the U.S. military service secretaries and undersecretaries of defense Wednesday morning, according to a U.S. defense official. During the meeting, Shanahan stressed the importance of focusing on ongoing operations in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere, but also told the team to “remember China, China, China,” the official said. The comments were an apparent reference to the National Defense Strategy shift from counterterrorism to great-power competition, but also suggest Shanahan could advocate for a tougher stance against Beijing.

Shanahan apparently made no mention of Russia, another major focus of the strategy.

Shanahan also announced during the meeting that Pentagon Comptroller David Norquist will effectively be his No. 2, taking on the duties of deputy defense secretary, the official said. In the position of comptroller, which he has held since June 2, 2017, Norquist served as the principal advisor to the defense secretary on all budgetary and financial matters, including overseeing the department’s annual budget.

“As Department of Defense Chief Financial Officer and Comptroller for the past 19 months, David Norquist has had insight into virtually every tenet of this department,” Shanahan said. “I have the greatest confidence in his abilities to lead a phenomenally talented team while performing the duties as Deputy Secretary of Defense.”

Following the cabinet meeting, Shanahan planned to make a series of notification calls to congressional leaders and “key allies,” the official said.

On Monday, Dana White, Mattis’s chief spokeswoman, became the first of what is expected to be a wave of resignations from Mattis’s staff. White announced her departure in a tweet on Dec. 31, hours after Mattis sent his farewell message to department employees. White, who has been criticized for her increasingly rare appearances at the podium in the Pentagon briefing room, has reportedly been under investigation since last August for misusing support staff for personal business. White previously worked for Fox News, the Heritage Foundation, and Sen. John McCain.

After White’s departure, Charles Summers Jr., the principal deputy assistant for public affairs, immediately assumed the role of acting assistant to the defense secretary for public affairs. Summers, formerly Maine’s secretary of state, is a U.S. Navy Reserve captain and ran twice unsuccessfully as the Republican Party’s nominee in Maine’s 1st Congressional District.

Meanwhile, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Burke Whitman, who was tapped in November to be the department’s uniformed spokesman after months of silence from the Pentagon podium, will be leaving his position, he confirmed to Foreign Policy.

The Defense Department currently has no additional personnel moves to announce, according to spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Buccino. Kevin Sweeney, Mattis’s chief of staff, remains in his position for now and will report to Shanahan. Meanwhile, Ralph Cacci, formerly Shanahan’s chief of staff, will now report to Norquist.

There will likely be more personnel moves ahead for the Pentagon. Sweeney is rumored to be looking for a new job, as is Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.

The word is that Lord “is uncomfortable with Trump’s statements” and “not happy with Shanahan as the next SecDef, if that ends up being the choice,” according to a source with knowledge of the discussions.

However, a defense official said there is “absolutely no truth to rumors that Undersecretary Lord is leaving or that she’s unhappy or uncomfortable with President Trump or acting Secretary Shanahan.

“She remains at her post and is committed to the department and the men and women serving around the world,” the official said.

This story has been updated to include remarks from President Trump, and comment from a defense official. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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