Patrick Shanahan’s Long Audition for Defense Secretary
In an interview with Defense One, Shanahan said that “of course” he wants the job. “I think I can serve the department well,” he said. At one point, Shanahan seemed a likely candidate to take over the secretary role permanently, though Donald Trump indicated that he was “in no hurry” to make anything official. Speaking to reporters in early January, Trump noted that both his chief of staff and his secretary of the interior were also serving in an acting capacity, following resignations. “I like acting,” he said then. “It gives me more flexibility.”
He also liked Shanahan in particular, the White House press secretary said in March, even as she declined to comment on rumors that Shanahan would be nominated. It was Shanahan who spearheaded efforts to create a space force, a presidential priority. It was Shanahan who at one point reportedly characterized the Defense Department internally as “not the Department of No”; he later publicly dubbed it the “Department of Get Stuff Done.” It was Shanahan who, according to the White House, briefed Trump on the plane to Mar-a-Lago last week right before the president announced that ISIS had fully lost its territory. (The Kurdish-led forces fighting ISIS announced this a day later.)
Shanahan has also provided continuity to the Pentagon following Mattis’s resignation. As the deputy secretary of defense, he called himself the “down-and-in” guy to Mattis’s “up and out”—Shanahan would run day-to-day operations in the building while Mattis would deal with the White House and international relationships. One of Shanahan’s key roles was assisting in the development of the National Defense Strategy, focused on reorienting the DOD toward great-power competition following nearly two decades of the War on Terror. He continues to promote the strategy, published during Mattis’s tenure, as a guiding principle for the department. Elbridge Colby, who worked closely with Shanahan as the lead official in the National Defense Strategy’s development, says that Shanahan’s work was “crucial in brokering consensus, as well as ensuring the strategy was a hard-hitting document.”
“I think he’s trying to carry forward what Mattis set out,” Colby says. Implementation of the strategy, though, is already proving a challenge, given fights over funding.
Shanahan’s prospects have grown complicated—in part because he’s following the president’s orders. Trump’s sudden December announcement that he intended to bring U.S. troops home from Syria immediately helped lead to Mattis’s resignation; under Shanahan, the Defense Department has begun the withdrawal, starting with equipment. Shanahan’s efforts to explain that policy generated a confrontation with lawmakers at the Munich Security Conference in February—one that Senator Lindsey Graham, who is close to Trump, later relayed to reporters. “If the policy is that we are leaving by April 30,” as the president had directed at the time, “I am now your adversary, not your friend,” Graham said he told Shanahan. (A disclosure here: My significant other was in the meeting, but this characterization is based on news reports detailing what Graham said happened.) Trump has since changed the policy, agreeing to leave some 400 troops in the country.