“If the president would determine I would be the candidate, the person that he wanted to lead the Air Force, I would certainly strongly consider it,” Kinzinger, R-Ill., said in a Fox News interview on Saturday. Kinzinger was asked about a rumor that he was a candidate.
While Kinzinger said, “I like my job now,” he felt “new-generation leadership” would be great for the service, adding that he understands the pilot shortage impacting the Air Force. “But I know [Trump’s] going to make a great decision. There’s a lot of great people, but it’s a very transitional time for the Air Force. It would be an honor to be considered,” he said.
The 41-year-old would be a notable choice, as he would be the first Iraq War veteran nominated to serve as a secretary of an armed service, and because Kinzinger has both publicly criticized the president and more recently emerged as a supporter.
Since deploying with his Air National Guard unit to the U.S.-Mexico border, he has supported Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to use Defense Department funding to build a wall there.
Yet, the five-term congressman’s prospects are unclear, at least in part because Trump hasn’t nominated a defense secretary to lead the Pentagon and because Air Force Under Secretary Matthew Donovan is also seen as a contender for the top civilian Air Force job, at least in an acting capacity.
The speculation follows Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s announcement she will resign at the end of May to become president of the University of Texas at El Paso.
Neither Kinzinger’s office, the Pentagon nor White House sources on Friday would confirm or deny that Kinzinger was under consideration.
Aerospace analyst Rebecca Grant, of IRIS Independent Research, said it’s probable the White House will boost Donovan, the service’s No. 2 civilian, to the acting Air Force secretary role.
Donovan, a former F-15 pilot and policy director for the Senate Armed Services Committee under its late chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is known as a capable administrator with a deep knowledge of Air Force technology and policy issues.
With a presidential election coming up in a matter of months, and the Trump administration focused on that and other issues, it makes sense to elevate Donovan to the top Air Force post, at least for the short term, Grant said.
"Every White House has trouble getting nominations cranked through — I think this one particularly, and particularly at this point in time. They have a lot on their minds that’s not to do with getting all the paperwork done for the nominees,” she said.
"To me, Matt Donovan looks like an easy choice given the number of acting officials that are there [at the Pentagon], and I get the sense that we have a holdup on nominations from the Senate side, and the White House is even less efficient than usual in getting people through. So I'd say, 60-40, they'll keep Donovan,” Grant said. "He's a shrewd leader and would be a very sound choice."
Kinzinger is serving Illinois’ 16th District, which he won by 14 percentage points in last year’s election. Before selecting Kinzinger, the White House would have to weigh the political cost — with Republicans already the minority in the House — of leaving his seat unfilled or of a special election to fill it.
The lawmaker flies the Air Guard’s RC-26 surveillance plane and recently wrote a commentary for Air Force Times calling for the Guard to reverse its decision to retire the aircraft.
In the active-duty Air Force, he piloted the KC-135 Stratotanker and flew missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and South America.
Kinzinger met with Trump in early March after he deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border with his Air National Guard unit. He said he was undecided whether the situation constituted a national emergency before he went there, but later said he “came back absolutely convinced this is a national emergency.”
A sharp critic of Trump at times, Kinzinger denounced him in appearances on CNN. Kinzinger said before the 2016 election that he couldn’t see himself supporting Trump’s candidacy and that he was “disgusted” by Trump’s comments lashing out at Republicans who lost their midterm election races.
He also, in 2016, called Trump’s foreign policy “narcissistic” and the president’s conditional support of NATO “utterly disastrous.” Kinzinger has since said he would defy the White House in favor of tough sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government, and called Trump’s video defending his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria “tacky.”
But Trump, who is often characterized as a man who demands loyalty and is slow to forgive perceived slights, has demonstrated a willingness to work with those who have criticized him.
If Kinzinger is nominated, he would be the first veteran of the war on terror to do so. Former Army Under Secretary Patrick Murphy, the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress, served as acting Army secretary for five months in 2016.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.