WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has seen enough of Patrick Shanahan, and liked what he saw.
After months of expectations, Shanahan, an industry veteran who was thrust into the Pentagon’s top spot after Jim Mattis resigned, is the president’s official pick as the next secretary of defense.
In a statement, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Shanahan’s nomination was “based on his outstanding service to the country and his demonstrated ability to lead” the Defense Department. He has served as acting Defense Secretary since Jan. 1.
Shanahan took to Twitter to thank the president for his confidence.
“If confirmed by the Senate, I will continue the aggressive implementation of our National Defense Strategy,” he wrote. “I remain committed to modernizing the force so our remarkable Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines have everything they need to keep our military lethal and our country safe.”
Shanahan, 56, spent decades at Boeing before he was picked in April 2017 by Trump to serve as Mattis’ deputy secretary of defense. The No. 2 position is essentially the Pentagon’s top manager, responsible not only for its day-to-day priorities, but also for institutional reforms and restructuring sought by the administration.
The nomination comes just days after the conclusion of an Inspector General investigation into whether Shanahan violated his ethics agreement by pushing products made by his former employer. Shanahan consistently denied any wrongdoing, but the investigation is believed to have held up any potential nomination.
As acting secretary since Jan. 1 of this year, Shanahan has had plenty of exposure to both Trump and Congress, While a series of hearings brought less-than-stellar reviews, no serious concerns have cropped up from the Senate Armed Services Committee about his nomination, with committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., having given his tacit, if not fully enthusiastic, support for the nominee.
However, it’s possible Democrats, looking to hurt Trump ahead of next year’s elections, may put up a fight against the nomination. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who is running for president, could be a critical voice.
What changes are expected?
Across speeches and interviews over the months since becoming acting secretary, Shanahan has made it clear that if given the full job, he will largely stay the course with the policies and goals from the Mattis era.
In particular, he has been vocal about his desire to hew closely to the National Defense Strategy, which calls for a focus on great power competition as opposed to the counterinsurgency campaigns that have dominated America’s military focus for the last 18 years.
Asked what to expect from Shanahan if he were given the top job, an administration official familiar with his thinking said to expect little change from Mattis’ priorities.
“Telling people we need to reprioritize away from counterterrorism operations and focus on Russia and China — Mattis, as a voice, was uniquely postured to explain that, and I think he did," the official said. "The oversight committees are now on board. But the next click down is: What does that mean? And that’s where Shanahan spent the last 18 months, and that’s where he will continue to drive if he becomes secretary of defense.”
As both deputy and acting secretary, Shanahan made it clear his priority is China above all else.
“It’s a constant repetition every day, every week, using all the different tools at our disposal, and constantly saying: ’Remember China, remember the NDS. Remember China, remember the NDS,'" the official said.
Even those who support Shanahan acknowledge he is not an expert in foreign policy. And while that is a major component of the job, Shanahan may be more internally focused than previous secretaries of defense.
For instance, he will likely continue to be a driving voice on the department’s new space architecture, creating U.S. Space Command, the Space Development Agency and, eventually, a Space Force. He has appeared most comfortable in public when addressing that issue, as well as internal reforms sought for the Pentagon.
How is Shanahan’s relationship with the White House?
While many of the overarching themes may line up with those of Mattis, Shanahan’s approach to the White House is expected to be different.
Under Mattis’ tenure, Trump’s major policy initiatives largely involved the Pentagon — including transgender policy, the border wall, the interruption of military exercises in South Korea, a local military parade and the withdrawal from Syria. And the White House did not like delay. Any internal debate on how best to proceed on the president’s requests, instead of just an immediate implementation, was perceived by the White House as disloyalty and slow-rolling.
With Mattis, too, there was a sense from White House officials that the Pentagon was actively pushing back in some cases against the president’s wishes.
Shanahan has been a quick study of that dissatisfaction and has made it a priority to communicate to the president that the slow-rolling stops under his management.
“Mr. President, we are ready for this task,” Shanahan said to Trump in January, as the president visited the Defense Department to announce its new Missile Defense Strategy. “This is the department of ‘get stuff done.’ ”
The official described the difference between Mattis’ and Shanahan’s relationship with the president as a question of approach. In Shanahan’s eyes, the official said, Trump is “the higher headquarters. He gives us a legal order, and the answer is ‘yes.’ His job is to understand the intent of his boss and come back with options and come back with his recommendation."
“Start with ‘yes’ and then come back with options," the official added. "What you’ll see play out, is: ‘Got it, boss, we’ll do it, but let me come back with the best way to do that.' ”
Supporters of Shanahan say this approach has helped smooth the withdrawal from Syria and manage the situation in Afghanistan.
Like Mattis, Shanahan has not sought out cameras with which he could communicate to the public. However, he has repeatedly pledged to restart start on-camera briefings, and he recently brought in a new head of communications.
Military Times reporters Tara Copp and Leo Shane contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.