WASHINGTON — What was expected to be an easy confirmation hearing for the Trump administration's deputy secretary of defense nominee started on a sour note Tuesday with Sen. John McCain threatening to hold up the nomination of Patrick Shanahan — and raising questions about the Boeing executive's industry ties.
The issue started with Shanahan's written testimony, in which he did not endorse giving lethal aid to Ukraine, instead writing that "The provision of lethal defensive equipment [to Ukraine] as part of our already robust security assistance program is an option I plan to look at closely if I am confirmed… I plan to examine this issue closely."
McCain, an Arizona Republican and chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wasted no time jumping in, saying that answer was "not satisfactory," and demanding clarity. And while Shanahan said he did support lethal aid for Ukraine, McCain did not let the issue go, shaking his head and saying, "Your response to that question was, frankly, very disappointing to me."
"It’s very disturbing. We have an executive of one of the five major corporations that has corralled our defense budget," McCain continued. "And on the major issues that this committee has had hearings about, has had markups about, has reported out of the bill — and you want to find out more information? Not a good beginning. Not a good beginning."
"Do not do that again Mr. Shanahan or I will not take up your name for a vote before this committee."
A contrite Shanahan said the chairman’s message was "very clear" before other senators began to ask questions, and tension began to leave the room.
But minutes later, McCain jumped in to hit Shanahan again, saying, "Mr. Shanahan, you're not making me happy. We expect straightforward answers, and you just ducked basically every question. … I'm not going to sit here and watch you duck every question and expect everything will go smoothly. It will not."
Speaking to reporters after the event, McCain would not rule out holding up the nomination vote, saying, "I want to give him the chance to respond. We’ll see."
The pushback from the SASC chair was unexpected, in part, because of McCain’s previous statements about Shanahan, such as when he told Defense News in April that "we’d certainly like to move forward with [Shanahan]. He’s got an excellent reputation."
And despite McCain’s comments, the rest of the hearing was largely uneventful, with at least one committee member — Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. — saying outright he will support Shanahan’s nomination.
Shanahan is currently senior vice president of supply chain operations for Boeing. Shanahan has also served as vice president for both Boeing missile defense systems and the company’s rotorcraft division, giving him oversight on programs like the CH-47 Chinook and the AH-64D Apache.
As a result, Shanahan said he would recuse himself from any program decision dealing with Boeing technology unless given a waiver by the ethics office.
"We will put in mechanisms so that my calendar, the meetings I’ll participate in, will be screened to make sure there are no matters related to Boeing that I will be exposed to," Shanahan said, later adding that he would make public any recusal letters.
That is welcome news to Mandy Smithberger, director of the Straus Military Reform Project, but she warned that more details need to be clarified going forward.
"We applaud Mr. Shanahan's commitment to the committee to recuse himself from matters involving his former employer, but the devil will be in the details since Boeing has interests in both the programs and policies of the Department. We hope that any and all recusals will not only be made available to the committees of jurisdiction but also the public so they can be confident in the integrity of the Department's decision making."
McCain also did not seem impressed by the recusal plan, nor did he sound thrilled with the fact Shanahan comes from Boeing, a longtime target for the Arizona Republican.
"Your job is one of the most important and key elements [for DoD] and frankly I’m not overjoyed that you came from one of the five [big defense] corporations, 90 percent of the spending of the taxpayer dollars comes out of five different corporations. That’s not what our founding fathers had in mind," McCain lectured Shanahan at the end of the hearing.
Aside from McCain, senators were largely focused on the types of work the deputy secretary of defense typically handles — the day in, day out management of the Pentagon and the development of future technologies.
Perhaps the biggest question about Shanahan is how quickly someone with no Pentagon experience can come in and take over the major management functions of the deputy. The Boeing executive downplayed those concerns, citing his background from industry as experience, but also said his early priorities will help him get up to speed.
"The first place that I was going to hit the ground running was on the restructuring of [the Acquisition, Technology and Logistics office] and then working the chief management officer initiative. I think that'll be a good way to begin to understand the inner workings of DoD," Shanahan said. "And then in the second phase of that, participating in the Nuclear Posture Review and the National Ballistic Missile Defense review also began to allow me to interface with some of these other organizations and structures."
At various points throughout the hearing, Shanahan also offered vocal support for greater use of additive manufacturing, praised the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx) group, pledged to try and grow the Pentagon’s supply chain, and said he would continue to focus on the ideas behind the Third Offset technology package.
"Innovation is messy," Shanahan said. "I think we shouldn’t be afraid. Organizations that pride themselves on execution tend to be afraid of failure. I’m a proponent of failing fast, learning quickly. I think the faster you do that the more you end up training people."
Joe Gould in Washington 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.