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Over 4 months after Mattis quit, Trump picks Patrick Shanahan as defense secretary

He’ll now have to stay in the president’s good graces.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks to the media before welcoming French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly during a honor cordon at the Pentagon on March 18, 2019 in Arlington, Virginia.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks to the media before welcoming French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly during an honor cordon at the Pentagon on March 18, 2019, in Arlington, Virginia.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The White House says President Donald Trump will nominate Patrick Shanahan, who has spent more than four months as the acting secretary of defense, for the permanent job. It’s likely his reward for being so amenable to President Donald Trump’s policies — from China to Venezuela to the southern border — since taking over the Pentagon’s top position.

“Based upon his outstanding service to the Country and his demonstrated ability to lead, President Trump intends to nominate Patrick M. Shanahan to be the Secretary of Defense,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a Thursday statement. “Acting Secretary Shanahan has proven over the last several months that he is beyond qualified to lead the Department of Defense, and he will continue to do an excellent job.”

Shortly afterward, Shanahan, a former top Boeing executive who spent 30 years at the company, said in a statement that he looks forward to becoming the defense chief, if confirmed by the Senate. “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,” he said.

Shanahan has been in the acting role since January 1, when he stepped in to replace outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis after Mattis dramatically resigned, mainly in response to Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria.

But though he’s been serving as the acting secretary for months, it was never guaranteed that he would get the position full-time. In March, the Pentagon’s inspector general looked into allegations that Shanahan boosted Boeing while acting in his official capacity. However, in late April, the watchdog cleared Shanahan of the potential ethics violation.

There were also concerns among Trump officials that Shanahan couldn’t do the job after a series of lackluster performances during congressional testimonies in which he flubbed important questions about America’s defense policy and wars abroad.

He’s overcome those obstacles, though. And assuming the Senate confirms him, he’ll be set to lead America’s armed forces — as long as he stays in Trump’s good graces.

Shanahan has to stay on Trump’s good side

Sources told me that Shanahan and Trump have a very strong relationship. They have spoken at length in the Oval Office about Pentagon issues, and about their shared view that weapons programs are unnecessarily expensive and cumbersome. It also helps that National Security Adviser John Bolton seems to like Shanahan too, sources note.

Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.
Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan arrives for his first day in his new job at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, January 2, 2019.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

By most accounts, Shanahan did a good job as Mattis’s deputy. His main role was to run day-to-day Pentagon operations and try to reform the bureaucracy as much as possible. He also gained Mattis’s trust over time, even though he wasn’t originally the former Marine general’s first choice.

However, Shanahan didn’t spend much time on foreign policy in the Defense Department or in his three-decade career at Boeing, so taking on the top role permanently will be a big change for him.

The reason Trump likes Shanahan, though, may come down to one very simple thing: He’s deferential. During a Cabinet meeting on January 2, for example, Shanahan sat stoically next to Trump as the president slammed Mattis for keeping America’s military involved in conflicts overseas, particularly in Afghanistan.

Shanahan has also reportedly told Pentagon leaders to focus on “China, China, China” — a country the president cares about challenging — which may also keep him in Trump’s good graces.

Mattis, on the other hand, was known to challenge Trump on occasion, and their relationship eventually broke down over Trump’s desire to withdraw troops from Syria.

It’s unclear at this point if Shanahan will push back on anything Trump wants to do.