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Pentagon Industrial Policy Head Tapped for Chief of Staff
Acting defense secretary’s decision to tap Eric Chewning, who manages industrial policy for the Pentagon, is an olive branch to chief weapons buyer Ellen Lord.
Eric Chewning, a senior U.S. Defense Department official who manages industrial policy and reports directly to the department’s chief weapons buyer, Ellen Lord, will be the new chief of staff to acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
The appointment helps fill out Shanahan’s staff as speculation continues over how long he will stay in the job following former Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s resignation several weeks ago. Mattis’s chief of staff resigned shortly after his departure, leaving Shanahan, a former industry executive with little prior government experience, bereft of an important aide to help him navigate the Pentagon’s complex bureaucracy.
The chief of staff holds important sway in the Pentagon, counseling and advising the secretary of defense behind the scenes. Current and former officials say Shanahan is in sore need of a chief of staff who can navigate the complex bureaucracy and politics of the Pentagon in his new role. Shanahan, a former longtime executive at Boeing, was thrust into the position on Jan. 1 following President Donald Trump’s decision to oust Mattis earlier than planned. Mattis’ chief of staff, retired Rear Adm. Kevin Sweeney, resigned from his post on Saturday.
“For sure [Shanahan] needs help in running the building now,” said Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon official. “For a secretary of defense, you need a chief of staff who you can trust and knows the bureaucratic politics of the building.”
The choice of Chewning would be an olive branch from Shanahan to Lord, the department’s only female undersecretary, who has had a rocky relationship with the acting secretary and is rumored to be considering leaving.
Chewning could be a smart choice for Shanahan as the Pentagon hastens to stem an exodus of experienced officials from the building. Lord, a former CEO of Textron, has led the charge on reforming the way the department does business and steered the Pentagon through a dramatic congressionally mandated restructure of its weapons buying office. She is seen as a key liaison between the Pentagon and the defense industry.
However, Lord and Shanahan have clashed in the past. Shanahan in October directly blamed Lord’s office for an unpopular proposed change to the way the Pentagon handles industry cash flow. Shanahan killed the proposed change following complaints from industry and members of Congress.
During a media roundtable at the Pentagon in October, Shanahan indicated that Lord had dropped the ball.
“I sat down with Ellen and she shared with me that they hadn’t fully coordinated the input, and I said, ‘Well fine, we’ll just pull it back, we’ll fully coordinate it and we’ll move along,’” Shanahan said . “I’m not down managing the details of all those rules and regulation. Ellen does. They had an escape.”
Current and former officials say Mira Ricardel, a former senior White House aide who was ousted in November after she ran afoul of the first lady, was also in the running for the role before Shanahan settled on Chewning. One source says she is still in the running for a senior position at the Pentagon.
Chewning, an Army veteran and former partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., was tapped in October 2017 to be deputy assistant secretary of defense for manufacturing and industrial base policy. In that position, he helped to spearhead the Pentagon’s piece of a comprehensive White House review of defense industrial base. The review, which was rolled out in October, accused China of flooding world markets with certain materials critical to the operation and manufacture of key U.S. weapons—fuel used in U.S. missiles and rockets and components of U.S. military jets, for example.
“Chewning brings an array of military and industry experience to the role,” Eric Pahon, A Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Ricardel, Trump’s former deputy national security advisor, was ousted from her position after an unusual public row with Melania Trump’s office centered on disputes with her staff over the first lady’s trip to Africa in October 2018. The White House announced she was leaving her position for a “new role” in the administration in November, but in the months since it has never clarified what her new role would be.
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman