Trump’s ‘Compliant’ New Pentagon Chief

Patrick Shanahan’s record of deference to the U.S. president could be a reason for the White House to install him permanently as defense secretary.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, talks to journalists during a meeting with members of his cabinet, including acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, in the Cabinet Room at the White House on Jan. 02. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, talks to journalists during a meeting with members of his cabinet, including acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, in the Cabinet Room at the White House on Jan. 02. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Patrick Shanahan, the acting U.S. defense secretary as of Jan. 1, could be just the kind of man President Donald Trump wants at the helm of the Pentagon.

Known as “Mr. Fix-It” during his 31 years at Boeing, Shanahan has a reputation for cutting costs and cleaning up troubled programs like the 787 Dreamliner. These kind of management skills will no doubt come in handy in overseeing the nation’s largest bureaucracy.

But even more appealing to the White House, perhaps, is Shanahan’s record of deference to the president.

In his previous position as deputy secretary of defense, “Shanahan was never interested in challenging Trump or, for that matter, [former Secretary of Defense James] Mattis—he was running the business side of things,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “Naturally, he was going to come across as a more compliant figure.”

When Trump asked the military to stand up a Space Force—a plan Mattis initially opposed—Shanahan took up the mantle, spearheading the Defense Department’s effort to establish the new service branch. When Trump ordered a ban on transgender service members, Shanahan took on a leading role in recommending the path forward. When Trump demanded the Pentagon cut defense spending by 5 percent next year, Shanahan announced that the department would prepare two budgets for his review—a $733 billion option, and a scaled-down $700 billion alternative.

This was in contrast to Mattis, who occasionally slow-walked White House orders—for example, Trump’s desired military parade in Washington, D.C., on Veterans Day.

And during an extraordinary 95-minute cabinet meeting on Jan. 2, Shanahan looked on silently as the president assailed America’s wars in the Middle East, rewrote the history of Afghanistan and Russia, and slammed U.S. military leaders—including Shanahan’s former boss.

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

Hours later, Shanahan tweeted that he “Had a great day today – participated in a Cabinet meeting at the @WhiteHouse.”

Experts said Shanahan’s behavior during the meeting was concerning.

“I think we can expect the acting secretary, as he was yesterday, to be complicit in the continued corrosion of civil-military norms by the president,” said Kori Schake, the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The president wants a complicit cabinet, and he’s gotten one, with the single honorable exception of [Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats].”

For some observers, one concern is that the White House will be able to manipulate Shanahan more easily than it did Mattis.

“Pat Shanahan is not a policy person,” said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute. “That’s why people like [National Security Advisor John] Bolton and [acting Chief of Staff Mick] Mulvaney are pushing him [for secretary of defense]. They know that if they have a technocrat installed, they will have more latitude to do whatever they want.”

Trump himself touted that he and his new acting Pentagon chief are on the same page on the very issue over which Mattis resigned—the treatment of allies. During the cabinet meeting, the president seemed to pit the two men against each other, seeming to indicate that Shanahan may take a tougher stance against allies that the president perceives as taking advantage of the United States.

“A lot of our allies were taking advantage of our taxpayers and our country. We can’t let that happen,” Trump said. “And Pat Shanahan agrees with that, and he’s agreed with that for a long time. So—and that was very important to me. I couldn’t get other people to understand it.”

The Department of Defense declined to comment on the meeting.

Mark Cancian, a senior advisor with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cited Shanahan’s “superb” record as a defense industry executive but said his lack of experience dealing with both allies and Congress could mean he is “challenged to fill Mattis’s shoes.”

O’Hanlon, of Brookings, also cautioned against judging Shanahan prematurely. But he pointed out worrying weaknesses in the team at the top of the Pentagon. In addition to Shanahan’s inexperience, John Rood, a former Lockheed Martin executive who now serves as the undersecretary of defense for policy, “gets mixed reviews,” and Gen. Mark Milley “hasn’t had the same kind of command jobs” as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, who he is set to replace later this year.

“When you put all this together, there are reasons to worry about how the team is going to function … on crisis decision-making, allies, relationship-building, or on handling the Chinas and Russias of the world,” O’Hanlon said.

Ultimately, Shanahan may not end up in the chief Pentagon spot permanently. According to a Thursday New York Times report, the White House is seriously considering nominating Jim Webb, a former Democratic senator and secretary of the Navy, for the job.

But if Trump does pick Shanahan, will he end up being a yes man for the White House?

“You have to have that worry,” O’Hanlon acknowledged.

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