Patrick Shanahan, the acting defense secretary whose bid to formally replace Jim Mattis is in limbo, answers without hesitation when asked if he wants the job.
“Of course,” the Boeing executive-turned-Pentagon No. 2 said with a smile Tuesday, after a House Armed Services Committee hearing.
“I think I can serve the department well,” he said in a brief interview with Defense One. “I’ve spent nearly two years on the National Defense Strategy. I know the defense strategy, I know what it takes to see it though, and I think I can make a big impact in that area.”
Shanahan then hopped into a black SUV to go host Brazil’s defense minister at the Pentagon — one of the new duties he’s taken on since becoming acting defense secretary following Mattis’ abrupt resignation in December.
Just weeks ago, the acting secretary’s promotion seemed imminent, the subject of increasingly urgent-sounding rumors swirling through the Pentagon’s E-Ring. When President Trump visited the building on March 15, much of Washington thought he would announce Shanahan’s formal nomination.
It didn’t happen. The White House remained mum on whether Trump would pick the engineer and career businessman — even as Shanahan made multiple trips on Air Force One and garnered public praise from the president.
Then five days later, the day of one of those trips, the office of the Pentagon inspector general said it would investigate whether Shanahan favored Boeing and harshly criticized one of his former corporate rivals during his tenure as deputy defense secretary. Shanahan said he welcomed the investigation. It hasn’t been immediately clear how badly — or even if — it has dinged his fortunes.
But now, Shanahan and his allies are coming forward to advocate for his nomination.
Shanahan has been seen as the leading candidate for the post almost since Jan. 1, when he replaced Mattis, who quit over differences with the president. The White House has since struggled to find other credible candidates. On Capitol Hill, the outcome may hinge in large part on how long the investigation takes. Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a brief interview on Tuesday that Shanahan could be in trouble if the probe drags on too long.
But “if it’s going to be really short, then it shouldn’t have that much effect on it,” Inhofe said. “I’m the one who has said we should not have an ‘acting’ this long. We need to have that position filled with a permanent person, and this could create a problem with that.”
Shanahan has now served longer than any of the two previous officials to hold the post in an acting capacity, which critics have argued skirts the Constitution’s stricture that Cabinet officials must be nominated “by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.”
So far, Inhofe’s office hasn’t received any guidance from the White House or the IG’s office on what to expect. “I don’t know how long they’re going to delay” the nomination,” the committee chairman said. “We haven’t found out.”
With his potential nomination in question, several of Shanahan’s former colleagues expressed their support, painting a picture of a workaholic who would rather walk a manufacturing production line to talk with workers than schmooze in the corner officer with executives.
In a series of interviews this week, those allies pointed to Shanahan’s successes in a diverse set of challenging posts at Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace firm. They were eager to rebut critics’ claims that he would be a lackey for Trump.
“There’s this whole narrative about this guy being a meek, mild, mouse, yes-man — and nothing could be farther from the truth,” said John Tracy, a former Boeing executive who worked alongside Shanahan on and off for 20 years. “There’s one thing that irritates the heck out of me when I hear people saying it.”
As Mattis’ deputy, Shanahan was largely a behind-the-scenes leader at the Pentagon. When the former Marine general resigned in December, his deputy was thrust into the national spotlight. In those early weeks as acting secretary, Shanahan often appeared stone-faced while sitting next to Trump at White House cabinet meetings. Tracy said people should not make judgements from these pictures alone.
“He tells truth to power regardless of the consequences, but he does it in a professional way according to the rules of the culture we were trained in, which is ‘you don’t embarrass the boss in public’,” Tracy said.
Tracy met Shanahan in Philadelphia, where Tracy was in charge of advanced manufacturing, research and development work at Boeing. Shanahan ran the company’s helicopter projects — Tracy was one of his “customers” — and became known for his closeness to the workers building twin-engine Chinooks for U.S. Army and America’s allies.
“He viewed these front-line workers, literally the nuts-and-bolts guys, as key to the entire operation,” Tracy said. “He didn’t spend time schmoozing with the executives at corporate headquarters. He knew that the destiny of that plant rested in the hands of the front-line people on the shop floor. He built his relationship with those people.”
Shanahan said his production-line workers today are the combatant commanders, the four-star generals and admirals who oversee military operations around the globe.
“That’s the equivalent to the factory floor,” he said. “To me, spending time with them, talking about how we’re aligned to support them and how their role in terms of experimentation and thinking about great power competition, that’s where I’m doing my floor walking.”
During one Boeing assignment, Shanahan helped break down barriers between engineers and workers on the production line, according to Bev Wyse, a former Boeing executive who worked alongside him.
Wyse said Shanahan would often say, “I often regard patience not as a virtue, but as a character flaw,” an mantra she has repeated over the years. His view is: “If you see something wrong, stop talking about it, just go fix it,” she said.
His supporters also talk about a work ethic that left little time for activities outside of the job.
“The job doesn’t give you a lot of free time,” Tracy said. “We were working seven days a week for years.”
Allies believe that Shanahan’s skills as an engineer and businessman uniquely position him to run a Pentagon that is preparing to compete against Russia and China.
“We’ve got to get our game back on technologically and Pat knows how to do that. In some ways I think he is actually uniquely suited for this moment to take the reins,” one former defense industry CEO said.
For his critics, it’s exactly that technocratic mindset that has raised questions about his ability to manage the complex web of foreign alliances that Mattis was known for nurturing. Critics also question Shanahan’s independence from a president who has demanded loyalty over frank advice from senior advisors. “We are not the ‘Department of No,’” he told Pentagon officials after the announcement of Trump’s proposal for a new Space Force was announced. During Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, tried to distance Shanahan from Trump’s controversial request to use department funds for his border wall, but Shanahan vigorously defended the request.
Asked if he’d rather testify before Congress or brief the Boeing board, Shanahan said he’d take Capitol Hill.
“Those things we were talking about today are so important ... I think being able to work with Congress,” he said. “The things we can accomplish together are really significant for the Department of Defense.”
Shanahan remains an enigma on Capitol Hill. Even in the Democrat-controlled House, Shanahan’s ethics troubles have hardly made a blip. Just days after the news of the investigation became public, he faced no questions about the bias allegations during Tuesday’s hearing, even from Democrats — in part, one aide suggested, because he remains somewhat of an unknown. The myriad of other Trump administration officials under scrutiny for alleged conflicts of interest — including presidential son-in-law and senior White House advisor Jared Kushner and the president himself — have drawn far more attention.
Shanahan wants to make his stamp on the Pentagon by providing cyber, space, and missile capability that “changes our warfighting doctrine.” He also talks about making lasting reforms “to military healthcare, information technology, logistics, procurement” and putting in place “a cadre of leaders in place that think about great power competition [with China and Russia] fundamentally differently.”
Supporters of Shanahan are closely watching Inhofe. The Oklahoma Republican has criticized the acting secretary — last month, he told reporters on Capitol Hill that Shanahan lacked “humility,” which he described as the most important characteristic for a defense secretary to have. But Inhofe has generally shown little appetite for bucking the president since taking the Armed Services gavel after the death of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
For now, Shanahan — and the Hill — are waiting. There is no sign that Trump is in any hurry to nominate a permanent replacement to the role. In January, he told reporters, “I sort of like ‘acting’” because “it gives me more flexibility.”
Asked if he heard about any pending nomination coming, Shanahan said, “I serve at the pleasure of the president.”