After just one week on the job, the role of secretary of defense is Patrick Shanahan’s to lose.
Shanahan, a former top Boeing executive, officially became the acting secretary of defense on January 1. He replaced outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis, who dramatically resigned in late December in response to President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria.
Trump now has to select a permanent replacement for Mattis — but according to four defense officials and people familiar with the selection process, the current acting Pentagon chief is the frontrunner for the permanent job.
On Friday, an administration official told the Pentagon press corps that Shanahan could serve as the acting defense secretary for “an indefinite period at the discretion and direction of the president,” although some legal experts dispute that.
A Pentagon spokesperson, Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, was a little more vague when he spoke to me about Shanahan’s longevity in the acting position: “Acting Secretary Shanahan will serve in this capacity at the pleasure of the president and consistent with governing law.”
People I spoke to said Trump wants to keep Shanahan in his position for an extended period of time to see how he does. But the decision to stick with Shanahan may also be partly out of necessity.
Several people whose names have been floated as possible candidates, including former Army generals David Petraeus and Jack Keane, have come out publicly and said they don’t want the job. Other potential candidates, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have vocally criticized the president’s Syria move and thus likely wouldn’t be at the top of the president’s list.
Shanahan, on the other hand, has not made his views on the Syria decision known publicly. The administration “needs someone internal who is already confirmed and not on the record on the Syria pullout,” a source told me.
But Shanahan’s ascendency isn’t guaranteed. Three sources told me he’s challenged by a push from noninterventionist conservatives who want to see Jim Webb, the former Virginia Democratic senator, Navy secretary, and Vietnam veteran, become the next defense chief. “Webb is a real consideration,” one source told me. The New York Times first reported that the Trump administration is considering him.
On Friday, Trump tweeted that Webb really isn’t in his plans and praised Shanahan’s performance.
The story in the New York Times regarding Jim Webb being considered as the next Secretary of Defense is FAKE NEWS. I’m sure he is a fine man, but I don’t know Jim, and never met him. Patrick Shanahan, who is Acting Secretary of Defense, is doing a great job!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 4, 2019
Another source told me William Ruger, a vice president at the Charles Koch Institute, along with Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, are leading the pro-Webb effort. Ruger tweeted his support on Friday minutes after I asked him for comment; Ingraham in December tweeted that she liked the Webb nomination idea. Carlson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
If @realDonaldTrump wants a SECDEF who is also skeptical about forever wars in the Middle East, Senator Jim Webb would be as strong a fit as anyone qualified to lead the Pentagon.— William Ruger (@WillRuger) January 4, 2019
So while other prominent politicians remain under consideration to lead the Pentagon, it appears as of now that it’s really a two-horse race — with Shanahan firmly in the lead.
Shanahan likely has the job, if he wants it
Sources told me that Shanahan and Trump have a very strong relationship. They speak in the Oval Office at length about Pentagon issues, particularly weapons programs and how they don’t need to cost so much — something the president likes to hear. And it also helps that National Security Adviser John Bolton seems to like Shanahan too, the sources note.
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 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 would be a massive change for him.
But Trump may like Shanahan for one simple reason: He’s very deferential. During a Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, for example, he 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 might keep him in Trump’s good graces.
“I see zero-percent chance Shanahan doesn’t get the job right now if he continues to focus on China,” a person familiar with the selection process told me.
But Webb remains somewhat in the mix. In November 2016, days after Trump won the presidential election, Webb told a Washington audience: “This guy Donald Trump. The Republicans hate him. The Democrats hate him. The media hates him. I think I found my guy.”
Those skeptical of US military intervention abroad, such as Ruger, like that Webb was against the Iraq War. But he is an avowed China hawk, and has consistently railed against Beijing’s cyberattacks on the United States and aggressive maneuvers in contested Asian waters. Those two positions, along with Webb’s past praise of Trump, may appeal to the president.
There are some issues, though. First, Webb ran for the 2016 presidency as a Democrat. And second, he’s famously hard-headed and less likely to defer to Trump, which could cause problems should he get the job. “Knowing them both, I can say that Webb is much less willing to go with the organizational flow than Mattis has been,” James Fallows wrote in the Atlantic on Thursday.
Those complications, in part, mean that Shanahan remains the more likely candidate, sources say. Trump himself seemed to confirm that on Friday.
The White House is still looking at other candidates
Neither Shanahan nor Webb has clinched the nomination yet, though, and sources said other names have been floated around the White House since Mattis’s ouster.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK), an Iraq War veteran and staunch Trump supporter, remains a strong contender. But others rumored to have been under consideration include Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX), formerly the House Armed Services Committee chief; former Sen. Jon Kyl, who replaced the John McCain’s vacant Senate seat for a few months last year; and David McCormick, a business executive and formerly a top Treasury Department official.
It’s unclear how seriously the White House has considered any of them or if they would want the job if asked.
So by a mixture of circumstance and current performance, it seems Shanahan is more likely to receive the nomination than anyone else — at least for now.