Does Anyone Want to Be Secretary of Defense?
White House struggles to fill the top Pentagon job.
The search for a permanent replacement for former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis—a candidate who will satisfy both the president and the Senate—is not going well.
In recent months, at least four potential candidates approached about the job have demurred, according to several current and former U.S. officials. The list includes Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Tom Cotton, and former Sen. Jon Kyl, all Republicans.
Retired Gen. Jack Keane, who served as vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, has also taken himself out of consideration.
Their reasons are bound up in part with the hardships of the job, sources say. But they also appear to be tied to the personality of the person the defense secretary currently serves.
“The sacrifices associated with becoming secretary of defense deter most qualified candidates,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute think tank, noting the position’s low pay and uncertain longevity. “The president’s mercurial personality has simply exacerbated the drawbacks.”
President Donald Trump’s first choice for the job is Patrick Shanahan, the officials told Foreign Policy. Shanahan served as Mattis’s deputy and is currently filling the role as acting secretary of defense.
The sources said Shanahan possesses the qualities most important to the president and his top advisors, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: loyalty and compliance.
“Pompeo, Bolton, [acting chief of staff Mick] Mulvaney like Shanahan, because he has no policy experience and won’t challenge them,” said one former senior U.S. administration official. “The White House is happy to keep Shanahan as acting. With him at the helm, there is no chance of any resistance from DoD.”
“They are not looking for another Jim Mattis,” added a former U.S. government official.
But the sources said a Shanahan nomination for the permanent position, which must be confirmed by the Senate, would likely get pushback from Capitol Hill.
Multiple lawmakers were critical of Shanahan during last weekend’s Munich Security Conference, according to the former senior administration official. When Shanahan confirmed to Graham that he was going to move ahead with the plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria—a decision that prompted Mattis to resign—Graham responded: “I was a supporter. Now I’m an adversary.”
During the conference, Graham told some attendees that he was going to try once more to persuade Keane to take the job, the former senior administration official said.
This is not the first time lawmakers have criticized Shanahan. Republican Sen. John McCain, who served as the chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee until his death last year, ridiculed the ex-Boeing executive and nearly blocked his confirmation to be Mattis’s deputy.
“In the few instances where he has gone up to brief the Hill, it hasn’t really gone well,” said the former U.S. government official. “The perception was that this guy is in over his head.”
Ahead of the Munich Security Conference, McCain’s successor atop the committee, Sen. James Inhofe, criticized Shanahan as lacking the humility of his predecessor and indicated he does not believe the president will nominate him for the permanent cabinet role. (He later walked back the comments.)
“We need to have a secretary of defense, and I anticipate we will,” Inhofe told reporters during a roundtable event on Capitol Hill on Feb 12. “If you’re an acting, you don’t have the force you need in the office. … I think [Trump] is going to nominate somebody.”
Shanahan does seem to want the job—which sets him apart from other would-be candidates. During a recent trip to the Middle East and Europe, his first overseas travel in his new role, he told reporters he is “happy to serve the country in any capacity the president asks me to.”
The sources speculated that Trump may keep the acting secretary in the job as long as possible before nominating him.
“If I were Trump, who now thinks he is smarter than his generals and the secretary of defense, he’s got the perfect setup here,” said a former congressional staffer. “He’s got a guy who is not going to confront him, he’s got a guy who has got no allies.”
According to two former officials, Dan Coats, the current director of national intelligence, has also turned down the job. One of the former officials has known Coats for decades and another—the first former senior administration official—is close to a senior member of his staff.
Coats recently clashed with the president after contradicting Trump before Congress on the threats emanating from North Korea, Iran, and the Islamic State. Privately, Coats disagrees with the president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, the former senior administration official said. Several news outlets have reported in recent days that Trump is souring on Coats.
An Office of the Director of National Intelligence spokesperson pushed back strongly on the notion that Coats had been offered the defense secretary job.
“The White House has not discussed this position with the DNI,” the spokesperson said.
The other contenders had their own reasons for rejecting the offer. Cotton does not want to give up his powerful Senate seat, according to Thompson, particularly to serve a president who may not win a second term. The Arkansas senator also may feel that taking the job could interfere with his presidential ambitions.
“Because Cotton is such a star within the GOP, it is likely he is thinking about one day making a bid for the White House,” Thompson said. “Going to the Defense Department would be a detour rather than a plus in his career plans.”
A spokesperson for Cotton did not respond to a request for comment.
Kyl served as a senator for Arizona from 1995 to 2013 and then again from September to December 2018 after being appointed to succeed McCain. In an email to FP, he declined to comment.
A spokesperson for Graham said the South Carolina senator likes being in Congress and has “repeatedly, publicly said he has ZERO interest in any Administration job.”
Aside from Shanahan, one other top official does seem to want the job. U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson appeared to throw her hat in the ring last week in an interview with Politico’s Women Rule podcast.
Some people in the administration are pushing for Wilson as the choice for Pentagon chief because it “changes the narrative on Trump.” Wilson also has excellent relationships in Congress as a former Republican congresswoman and would be easily confirmed, the former senior U.S. administration official said. Wilson would be the first female defense secretary.
One current U.S. administration official said Wilson is in contention, but other sources expressed skepticism that she would ultimately get the nod.
“Heather Wilson would bring extraordinary qualifications to the job of defense secretary,” said Thompson, of the Lexington Institute. “However, Wilson is not close to the president, and he values personal chemistry highly in selecting his appointees.”
Still, Wilson could benefit from her close friendship with Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the search for a permanent secretary of defense. The two have known each other since their days in the House of Representatives.
“Secretary Wilson remains focused on building a more lethal and ready Air Force and advancing other important Air Force priorities,” said Air Force spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas.
Another contender mentioned in the past but largely overlooked by the media is David McCormick, the co-CEO of the global macro investment firm Bridgewater Associates. McCormick is married to Dina Powell, Trump’s former deputy national security advisor for strategy and one of the candidates to replace former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Both McCormick and Powell are deeply entrenched in Trumpland, running in the same social circles as Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner.
The administration source said Trump would likely favor McCormick if Shanahan is blocked.
But when all the options are taken into account, Shanahan might have the best chances of getting the appointment.
“When you look at the relatively small number of people who might want to take the job, and those who the White House might want to see in it, it seems to lead back to Shanahan as the most likely permanent secretary,” said Thompson, noting that the president “has a high regard” for his acting secretary of defense.