Before Resigning, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson Irked Trump

At one point rumored to be contender to run the Pentagon, she vexed the president with her independence.

Heather Wilson, the secretary of the U.S. Air Force, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Dec. 6, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Heather Wilson, the secretary of the U.S. Air Force, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Dec. 6, 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson submitted her resignation to U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday, bringing to a close months of speculation over whether she would be nominated for secretary of defense—or fired.

Wilson, a Rhodes scholar and former Republican congresswoman from New Mexico who is leaving the Pentagon to head the University of Texas at El Paso, drew Trump’s ire last year over what was seen as her campaign to undercut his effort to stand up a separate Space Force as a sixth branch of the U.S. military, Foreign Policy reported in October.

Wilson also clashed with then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who was promoted to acting secretary of defense after James Mattis stepped down at the end of the year, over the Space Force, sources said at the time.

“Some senior officials know how to disagree with [the president] without being disagreeable to him. Heather Wilson hasn’t managed to do that. Her opposition to the Space Force has grated on him and I think he permanently sees her as troublesome and ineffective now,” a U.S. administration official told FP at the time.

But in the last few weeks, Wilson was rumored to be a candidate to replace Mattis as secretary of defense—making her Shanahan’s competition, at least in the press if not in reality, for the permanent job.

It now seems clear that Wilson did not ultimately get the nod. She was not forced out, but it seems that her disagreements with Shanahan, who is now the leading candidate to replace Mattis, contributed to her decision, according to one source close to the conversation.

“She is not going to be Secdef, and she has no desire to work for the current acting [Secretary of Defense],” the source said.

Wilson’s tenure as the Air Force’s top civilian was rocked last summer by Trump’s unexpected order to establish a Space Force, separate and apart from the Air Force. The effort—a move that both Wilson and Mattis had come out against publicly before Trump announced it—was widely seen at the time as a vote of no confidence in the Air Force’s stewardship of military space. For Wilson, who as Air Force chief was responsible for much of the Defense Department’s assets and operations in space, creating a separate Space Force and a new civilian position—an assistant secretary of defense for space—was effectively a demotion.

By all accounts, Wilson pushed back strongly. In a June 19 memo to airmen, she cautioned that the process of standing up a Space Force will take some time and that immediate changes will not occur. The memo, which was distributed across the Air Force, made its way to the president’s desk, a source said at the time.

“This work directed by the president will be a thorough, deliberate, and inclusive process,” said the memo, which was signed by Wilson, Air Force Chief of Staff Dave Goldfein, and Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright. “As such, we should not expect any immediate moves or changes.”

Then, in September, Wilson sent a memo to Shanahan that detailed a long list of requirements for the new Space Force. According to the Sept. 14 document, creating it would take an additional 13,000 people and $13 billion over five years—a figure some critics said was badly exaggerated.

The memo angered both the White House and Shanahan, who was the Pentagon’s lead on the Space Force effort.

“Shanahan hates her guts,” one source said at the time, noting that Wilson often sends her second in command, Undersecretary Matthew Donovan, to meetings with Shanahan in her place.

Since then, Wilson has seemed to get on board with the Space Force, and she appeared to succeed in winning more control over the new service. In the final proposal sent to Congress March 1, the Pentagon is now advocating for a Space Force within the Air Force, much in the same way the Marine Corps is formally part of the Navy, rather than a separate entity.

Most recently, Wilson appeared to throw her hat in the ring for the top Pentagon job in an interview with Politico’s Women Rule podcast. She had a key ally in Vice President Mike Pence, whom she knew from their days in the House of Representatives.

Some people in the administration pushed for Wilson as the choice because it “changes the narrative on Trump,” a former administration official told FP in February. She also has excellent relationships in Congress as a former Republican congresswoman and would be easily confirmed, the former official added. Wilson would have been the first female defense secretary.

One current U.S. administration official told FP in February that Wilson was in contention, but other sources expressed skepticism that she would ultimately get the nod.

It seems that the voices against Wilson ultimately won out.

“It has been a privilege to serve alongside our Airmen over the past two years and I am proud of the progress that we have made restoring our nation’s defense,” Wilson said in her resignation letter, dated March 8. Wilson’s last day will be May 31.

Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute, said “the day-to-day stress of the job has really weighed” on Wilson, particularly the constant speculation about whether she was going to be promoted or fired.

“Heather Wilson was very highly qualified to be secretary of the Air Force: She is a former military officer, a rated pilot, Rhodes scholar, and a [former] member of congress. It does not get any better than that,” Thompson said. “If those qualifications aren’t good enough to give a person job security, then something is wrong.”

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

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