The knocks on President Donald Trump’s defense-secretary-in-waiting have been circulating for months behind closed doors in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.
Pat Shanahan is the “Boeing guy” who is still doing the bidding of his former employer, his critics inside and outside the administration say. He allows White House appointees, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, to directly contact lower Pentagon officials, according to current and former Defense Department officials who consider it a breach of the chain of command. He obsesses about his image — as shown in the all-black turtleneck ensemble he wore for a February visit to Afghanistan, which earned him mocking comparisons to a Bond villain or Keanu Reeves’ character from “The Matrix.”
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So far, none of this flak has sunk Shanahan’s belief that Trump will nominate him to lead the Pentagon, a step the president announced more than a month ago but has yet to submit to the Senate. But it offers a preview of the steep hill to confirmation that could be awaiting the longtime aerospace executive, who has already withstood an investigation into his handling of Boeing, unhappiness inside the White House over his performances at hearings and international gatherings, and the more recent flap involving the destroyer USS John S. McCain.
Trump offered a non-committal assessment Friday on Shanahan’s prospects. “He’s been recommended, now he has to be approved by Congress,” the president said in a Fox News interview. “We are going to see.”
Shanahan has been waging a counterattack, making more than two dozen trips to Capitol Hill in the past few months to win over lawmakers and enlisting the support of national security leaders in both parties. And in an interview with POLITICO, the acting defense secretary made the case that he is an effective steward of the military — one who knows how to deal with the Trump decision-making style that has flummoxed so many past Cabinet members.
“You have to know how to hit a curveball,” Shanahan said, insisting he stands up for the Defense Department’s interests even in the face of White House pressure. That was on display in May when he broke with Trump over whether North Korea had violated U.N. Security Council resolutions by test-firing missiles.
“What I’ve found with the president is he has a lot of new ideas and you have to work with him,” Shanahan said. “It’s not about going in and telling him no, but that doesn’t mean you go in and tell him yes.”
But five current and former Defense Department officials who have worked directly with Shanahan, both uniformed and civilian, say the acting secretary is too easily manipulated by an unpredictable White House.
These people say that in his six months of running the Pentagon, Shanahan has shown markedly less independence than former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a retired four-star general who slow-walked or outright resisted Trump’s policies on issues such as Syria strategy, transgender troops and the sending of military units to the U.S.-Mexico border. Shanahan, they say, is out of his league, outgunned by others in Trump’s orbit and so eager to get the job that he fails to defend the Pentagon’s position.
In particular, Shanahan’s critics say he has ceded too much authority over major decisions — such as deployments to the Middle East and the decision to designate an Iranian group as terrorists — to Bolton, a security hawk and experienced bureaucratic gunslinger.
Last month, for example, Shanahan complied with a request from Bolton and presented a plan to national security leaders for sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East amid threats from Iran, the New York Times reported. Ultimately, the U.S. sent a fraction of that number. Shanahan also routinely defers to Bolton on matters including operations, strategy and personnel, one Defense Department official who has worked with the secretary told POLITICO.
Even worse, Defense Department officials with direct knowledge of Shanahan’s operations said, he has tolerated a practice by Bolton and the National Security Council staff of calling Pentagon underlings and inserting themselves deep into the chain of command. That means the people who work for Shanahan are unprotected from interference by White House staff, who are not in the military’s chain of authority.
“These kinds of surgical strikes into the building didn’t happen with the previous regime,” said one Defense Department official who has worked with Shanahan, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid about their boss. “The NSC staff habitually reaches down into the bowels of the building.”
A defense official insisted that the behavior of Bolton and White House aides has little to do with Shanahan’s leadership. “This is a similar pattern that occurred under Secretary Mattis,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “He had a death grip on what came in and out, and even under that system the NSC would reach down into people in the Pentagon.”
But Shanahan’s critics say the deference to Bolton shows up in smaller ways as well: Whenever Bolton phones Shanahan, the acting secretary cuts his meetings short or kicks his aides out of his office so he can take the call. Mattis, in contrast, would often just promise to call the national security adviser back.
“Bolton is driving all things policy,” a former department official said bluntly.
Shanahan rejects such accusations, disputing any perception that he’s a pushover in deliberations with Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other close Trump aides.
“We’re out in front,” Shanahan said. “Whether it’s Iran or Syria … we have an equal seat at the table. I think a good portion of my responsibility here is to make sure Secretary Pompeo and I are synced up. Or, you think about the National Security Council. Are we working on the right things? Do we have the right priorities set there and do we make decisions on a timely basis?”
The White House has yet to submit Shanahan’s nomination to the Senate, more than a month after announcing that Trump intended to. The White House has offered no explanation for the delay, which occurred after an eruption of negative headlines surrounding allegations that the White House had asked the Navy to conceal the name of the USS John S. McCain during the president’s visit to Japan last month. (Trump and Shanahan have both denied knowing anything about the request.)
Shanahan’s defenders portray him as a calm, no-drama leader who is quietly working to enlist allies in the national security establishment.
“I’ve been quite impressed with him,” said John Hamre, a deputy defense secretary in the Clinton administration who now runs the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan think tank. “This is a guy who will work hard. He is demonstrating that.”
Eric Chewning, Shanahan’s chief of staff, said the acting secretary has quickly learned on the job despite some early stumbles.
“You can see the arc. He got better over time with his testimony and everything else, but it’s because he had to practice,” Chewning said. “Essentially he got thrust into the Super Bowl and the world got to watch him learn how to do that sort of thing real-time.”
Shanahan’s office provided POLITICO with the names of about a dozen people who could vouch for his temperament and qualifications.
Hamre, who was one of the people on the list, adds that he thinks the perception of Shanahan as a weak link is off the mark.
“He is not a pushover,” Hamre said. “He does push back. They say he is a strong voice when he is in the White House. This is what I’ve heard. Because I’ve been asking the question, too.”
Others POLITICO contacted who have navigated the world of high-level defense policy say Shanahan may simply be the most logical nominee — someone who, more than two years into Trump’s presidency, is already ensconced at the Pentagon, and experienced in dealing with the military and its issues as well as the commander in chief.
“He’s probably the best choice under the circumstances,” said former Obama administration Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Shanahan, 56, came to Washington to be Mattis’ deputy in early 2017 after a three-decade-long career at Boeing, where as a top executive he was credited with turning around some of the aerospace giant’s most troubled programs. His portfolio also included the company’s commercial jets, including the 737 MAX that is now facing scrutiny after two fatal crashes that killed 346 people.
Unlike Mattis, a career military man and veteran of the capital’s bureaucratic turf wars, Shanahan had scant experience in government or the military. To some, he seems tepid and unsure of himself. To others, he’s merely low-key.
“The first impression you get from him is sort of the relaxed West Coast,” David Norquist, the Pentagon’s second-ranking official, said in an interview. “He doesn’t become a source of the drama. He’s steady-as-she-goes, even-keeled. You can bring him bad news, you can bring him challenging news, you can bring him problems, and you’re not going to get the messenger shot. You’re going to get a serious discussion about where we go from here.”
Also unlike most of his predecessors, who decorated the secretary’s plush office suite with personal mementos collected over decades in government or politics, Shanahan’s workspace is unusually bare, much like the office he had when he was deputy secretary.
Among the few personal items is a framed picture of his father in his police uniform and a shelf stocked with some of his favorite books — on business, the Wright Brothers, and aviator Charles Lindbergh. One he refers to often is “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Built the Arsenal of Democracy That Won World War II,” according to aides who say it informs some of his approach to leadership.
Lean and athletic, Shanahan runs nearly every day he is in Washington — often with the enlisted military personnel who work in his orbit — and is a bit of a health nut who is particular about his salads and fruit and vegetable drinks.
Shanahan has been accused of trying too hard to fit into his role — like his clothing choice during his trip to Afghanistan — and of focusing more on his media image than on the tasks at hand.
The clothing was on Shanahan’s mind days after the Afghanistan trip, when he was overheard asking Britain’s then-defense chief what he thought of his outfit.
“He’s just spending way too much time focusing on the media. He’s pining for the job so that’s part of it,” one of the Defense Department officials said, adding that Shanahan gets distracted by criticism.
“I think it’s more a recognition that [he had] big shoes to fill and [Shanahan thought:] ‘I need to build out a media image that people can associate with me rather than being just the Boeing guy,'” said another Pentagon official.
By letting Bolton dictate policy and communicate directly with underlings, Shanahan is upending the chain of command, which is supposed to go from combatant commanders to the defense secretary to the president, the critics say. Bolton, whose job doesn’t require Senate confirmation, is supposed to be an adviser to the president.
This leaves Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the lame-duck chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to try to smooth things over between the Pentagon and the White House and shape policy while not irking Trump.
After Trump announced in December that he wanted to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, a decision that alarmed lawmakers and allies and prompted Mattis to resign, Dunford was the one who persuaded Trump to slow down the withdrawal, a defense official said.
Dunford retires this fall, though, leaving one less leader to check what some security officials see as the president’s more rash impulses.
Not only is Shanahan overly deferential to Bolton, his critics say, but he lacks the curiosity to dive into the details of the job. They say Shanahan glides over briefing materials, preferring charts and pictures to text, in contrast with the famously scholarly Mattis, who carefully reads his prepared briefings as well as his deep trove of history books.
“I’ve been in a number of meetings and briefings with [Shanahan] where that was apparent,” a former government official said of the acting secretary’s preparations. “I think he thinks he doesn’t need to [prepare] and that he can get up and talk about these things as he knows. … Maybe he did prepare and was just flustered. For one reason or another, the performances that I’ve seen … were pretty lackluster.”
Combatant commanders — the four-star generals and admirals who command forces in regions such as the Middle East and Asia-Pacific — used to present urgent requests to Mattis, who would take notes and give detailed responses.
Shanahan, defense officials say, often ends briefings by thanking the commanders for their leadership, rather than responding to their requests. Action items languish for weeks until nervous aides press Shanahan to make decisions.
Mattis “would take these things and write these margin notes on them, very detailed questions and you could tell that he was really reading it,” a former Pentagon official said. A Defense Department official said that with Shanahan, “eventually it’ll get brought to his attention, but he won’t do it unless he’s force-fed.”
Panetta said he’s heard of these kinds of delays, but chalked it up to a lack of personnel, not a lack of interest.
“Part of that is being an acting secretary for so long and not being able to get all of his team in place to make sure the issues that are being raised are being dealt with,” he said. “And so that may be part of the problem, but it clearly needs to be fixed.”
Shanahan is also trying to counteract the impressions he’s made since taking over. White House and Defense Department sources have previously told POLITICO that Shanahan’s public performances, either on Capitol Hill or on the world stage, haven’t wowed Trump.
They point out that when he testifies, he appears nervous and frequently defers to Norquist and Dunford.
“Whenever he’s testified in front of the Armed Services Committee, his testimony leaves a lot to be desired,” said a Republican member of the committee. “He’s talented in saying much of nothing.”
Shanahan maintains that his efforts to meet with members of Congress — to get to know them and seek their advice —have paid off.
“I think the frequency of interaction has helped,” he said. “People have a sense of what I can accomplish, where I’m adding value to the department.”
Shanahan’s defenders say he’s grown skilled in the job, including his role as a diplomat.
The Pentagon faced a quandary this month as Shanahan prepared to meet behind closed doors in Singapore with his Chinese counterpart: addressing the sensitive topic of North Korea’s recent smuggling operations in the South China Sea, in violation of U.N. sanctions.
His aim was to lobby Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe to take steps to stop the covert transfer of goods, a possible area where both countries could cooperate. But there was a strong expectation that the Chinese would feign ignorance or even question whether it was happening.
So to ensure Fenghe couldn’t deny what was taking place right under Beijing’s nose, Shanahan had an idea: Bring a gift for the Chinese delegation in the form of a glossy “coffee-table style” book of U.S. intelligence photos depicting the illegal activity — with enough copies for the whole delegation.
The unusual ploy paid off, according to officials with direct knowledge of the meeting in Singapore. “It was clearly a jarring moment for the Chinese at the start of this, and Secretary Shanahan controlled the rest of the meeting,” recounted a senior defense official.
Shanahan’s on-the-job performance has steadily impressed some influential players. “He’s acquired a great deal of knowledge in a relatively short period of time as the deputy secretary and now as the acting secretary,” said retired Gen. Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff who is close to the Trump White House. “Of course, he has a learning curve in understanding the politics of the Pentagon and Washington.”
Another advocate is former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, a member of the Defense Policy Board, a Pentagon advisory committee. She said in an interview that she hopes Shanahan will apply his considerable skills to solve some big problems.
“He is not Jim Mattis,” said Harman, who is now director of the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank. “He offers a completely different skill set. He should not try to be Mattis. At Boeing they called him ‘Mr. Fix It.’ He should cut through the bureaucracy and tackle a few big things like space and 5G.”
Others see Shanahan as well positioned to carry out a new National Security Strategy that places a premium on preparing for the threats posed by Russia and China, which he played a key role in drafting while deputy secretary.
“I think Shanahan is the guy for the job,” said Elbridge Colby, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, who previously worked as a top Pentagon official on strategy and force development under Shanahan. “He’s focused on the right issue, which is China, China, China, as he puts it. He’s not weighed down by a desire to figure out a new strategy in Afghanistan that’s going to turn the war around there — he’s got his eyes on the prize.
“We need to focus on China and we need to resist the temptation to get embroiled in another conflict in the Middle East, and Shanahan is the one I trust on those things,” Colby added.
Shanahan has also been diligent about reaching out to former defense secretaries for advice, his chief of staff says.
“Over the past few months, he’s talked to almost every former SecDef,” Justin Johnson, another top Shanahan aide, said recently. “Last week he talked to [former Pentagon policy chief] Michèle Flournoy. Hamre and [former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob] Work, you put them in a room together and they nerd out because they speak the same language.”
Other supporters agreed that Shanahan has one big advantage in dealing with Trump — their shared corporate background, in a business culture that prizes results over process.
“In Washington we tend to delve into process: ‘Sir, we’re going to have a meeting on the following, and then we’re going to put together a paper,’” Norquist said. “And that’s really not of interest to a chief executive officer.”
That tracks with Shanahan’s own description of Trump, who he said wants to set broad goals without getting into the weeds of policy decisions.
“He doesn’t want to be involved in the figuring-out part,” Shanahan said. “He wants to have me come back and say what are the options in order to achieve these things.”
Bryan Bender contributed to this report