The Pentagon’s Empty Throne

Patrick Shanahan, America’s longest-serving acting defense secretary, faces an increasingly hostile Senate.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan attends a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington on March 14. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan attends a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington on March 14. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

A good number of people in the defense community thought this would be the week that Patrick Shanahan finally escaped the dubious distinction of being America’s longest-running acting secretary of defense. It was expected that President Donald Trump would officially nominate Shanahan to replace James Mattis as Pentagon chief on Friday.

Didn’t happen. Even though there was a meeting at the Pentagon on Friday that featured the administration’s national security heavyweights—Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton, as well as Shanahan and the president himself—more than two months after Mattis’s last day, his formal successor remains a mystery.

And Shanahan, still unanointed though Trump’s clear favorite after multiple contenders turned down the job, is facing tougher questions than ever on Capitol Hill after a brutal day of testimony that presaged the confirmation hearing he’d likely face if he were nominated.

During a Thursday appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, lawmakers grilled Shanahan about Trump’s plan to declare a national emergency and use $3.6 billion in military construction funds to build his long-promised wall along the border with Mexico, as well as the move in the Pentagon’s budget request for fiscal year 2020 to skirt spending caps by moving a large chunk of money to a controversial war account.

Shanahan also confronted questions about his former employer. Boeing, even as the aerospace giant was engulfed in a global credibility crisis over its 737 Max 8 airliner, which was grounded Wednesday by the Federal Aviation Administration following two devastating plane crashes. Shanahan was the subject of a recent ethics complaint alleging that he was inappropriately favoring Boeing in contract decisions.

Some insiders said the reaction on Capitol Hill to Shanahan’s performance—in what was only his second ever appearance before the Senate—was not positive.

“The sense was he wasn’t prepared for things he knew he should have been prepared for, he didn’t have the answers to things he should have had the answers for,” said one former U.S. government official. “He didn’t come off looking confident and in charge.”

Shanahan has been criticized for his lack of experience in Washington after spending 30 years in the corporate world. He recently got an earful from lawmakers during a security conference in Munich, when Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called the decision to withdraw from Syria “the dumbest fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”

During Thursday’s hearing on the Defense Department’s budget request, lawmakers steered clear of questions on troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. But several senators pressed the acting secretary for details about which military construction projects the Pentagon will tap into to build the wall.

In his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shanahan said “military construction on the border will not come at the expense of our people, our readiness or our modernization.” But he acknowledged that he does not yet have a final list of projects that could lose funding or face cancellation as a result of Trump’s emergency declaration.

That prompted angry responses both from independent Sen. Angus King of Maine and Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who accused Shanahan of “sandbagging” lawmakers by failing to produce a list of projects that could be impacted.

“You’ve had a month,” King said. “I find it very hard to believe there is no list.”

Shortly after the hearing ended, lawmakers voted to reject Trump’s emergency declaration, setting up the first veto of his presidency.

Shanahan promised during the appearance to send lawmakers the list by the end of the day but failed to deliver, drawing even more outrage.

“This unacceptable series of evasions should trouble members of Congress, regardless of political party,” said Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the committee, in a late Thursday statement.

Democrats also slammed Shanahan for a decision to circumvent budget caps by diverting a large chunk of money to a war account that funds military operations abroad and is not subject to the spending limits. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts who is running for president, accused the Pentagon of trying to establish a “slush fund to hide what is happening with defense spending and get it out from underneath the statutory caps.”

Shanahan pushed back on Warren’s comments, saying the department has provided “100 percent transparency. There is no slush fund.”

“We can take the money and tie it back to the National Defense Strategy and what we need to defend America.”

Shanahan also faced questions about deplorable conditions of some military housing, the decision to retire an aircraft carrier decades early, the cancellation of exercises with South Korea, whether the Pentagon is lobbying the administration to adopt a weaker standard for dangerous PFAS chemicals, and more.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, pressed Shanahan on a press report that the United States is asking allies to pay more for basing U.S. troops, a plan commonly known as “cost plus 50 percent.”

But Shanahan shot down the reports as “erroneous.”

“We won’t do cost plus 50 percent,” Shanahan said. “We’re not going to run a business, but we are not going to run a charity. The important part is people pay their fair share.”

It was Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal who broached the topic of the 737 Max 8, almost an hour into the hearing. Acknowledging that the investigation was not a topic of the budget-focused hearing, Blumenthal asked Shanahan, who previously oversaw Boeing’s commercial aircraft production, if he had discussed the current situation with the administration.

“No, I have not,” Shanahan said, adding that he has not been briefed at all on the 737 Max 8.

In his role as deputy secretary of defense and acting secretary of defense, Shanahan is barred by an ethics agreement from involvement in all matters relating to Boeing.

Aviation experts agree it is probably a stretch to say Shanahan had a direct role in the design of the 737 Max 8. Shanahan was overseeing Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner when the 737 Max 8 launched, and then he was in charge of commercial aircraft production when the airliner moved through development under Scott Fancher, according to independent experts and Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher. Shanahan had left Boeing for the deputy secretary of defense role by the time the 737 Max 8 moved to production.

Blumenthal pressed Shanahan on whether he would be in favor of an investigation into “why these defects that cause crashes were not known earlier or were not acted upon.”

“I firmly believe we should let the regulators investigate the incidents,” Shanahan said, before offering his condolences to the victims of two horrific crashes in the last five months.

Blumenthal also quizzed the incoming Pentagon chief about an ethics complaint filed by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which called on the department’s Inspector General to investigate whether Shanahan has inappropriately favored his former employer.

When asked by Blumenthal if he would support such an investigation, Shanahan responded affirmatively.

Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, a spokesman for Shanahan, pushed back on the allegations in the complaint. He said the acting secretary had “at all times remained committed to complying [with] his ethics agreement, which screens Boeing matters to another [Pentagon] official and ensures no potential for a conflict of interest with Boeing on any matter.”

Blumenthal also questioned Shanahan about what he called a “pattern of retaliation” against reporters and “restricted press access to some of the top DoD officials.” Shanahan pushed back, saying he is “not aware of any restrictions”; by contrast, he believes since he has been acting there has been “much more interaction and engagement with the press.”

But some reporters noted—accurately—on Twitter that the Pentagon has not held an on-camera briefing since last August.

Blumenthal’s line of question was not raised again during the event.

Shanahan, who has filled the role since Mattis’s Dec. 31 departure, is the longest-serving acting secretary of defense in the history of the office, according to Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University Texas School of Law, where he specializes in national security law. The previous record-holder was William Taft, who served in the position for 60 days.

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

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