Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan denied boosting his former employer while at the Pentagon — and then proceeded to throw shade at that company’s major competitor.
Shanahan, who’s been in his role since January, is the subject of an ethics investigation by the Pentagon’s internal watchdog for allegedly favoring Boeing’s warplane — a top defense contractor he worked at for 30 years — over Lockheed Martin’s while serving as the deputy secretary of defense.
It’s a big deal, and it threatens to put the permanent role of Pentagon chief out of his reach, despite his long audition for the job.
It’s not that surprising, then, that during a one-on-one interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier on Tuesday night, Shanahan strongly and repeatedly denied he had done anything wrong.
“I am not biased towards Boeing. I’m biased towards performance,” he said during his first-ever televised interview, noting that he criticizes any “underperformance” he sees. “I have never favored Boeing in my current job and I never will,” he continued.
But when Baier followed up with a question about his potential political bias in Congress, Shanahan chose to sideswipe a Lockheed’s flagship product: “The work I’ve done is to drive waste out of the F-35 [fighter jet] program so we can deliver the capability our men and women deserve, and at a savings the taxpayers expect,” he said.
In an interview, @BretBaier asks Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan whether he's shown bias toward his old employer.— Dave Brown (@dave_brown24) April 10, 2019
"I have never favored Boeing in my current job and I never will" pic.twitter.com/VXSvModBmb
Why Shanahan’s comments were ill advised — and troubling
The F-35, a highly advanced fighter jet, is a product produced by Lockheed Martin, a major American defense contractor. The company sells it to nine countries, including the UK, Italy, and Denmark (and the US uses them too, of course). This program is a thorn in Boeing’s side, because it also competes to sell its high-tech warplanes to militaries.
But the F-35 program is also the world’s most expensive weapons system and has suffered major glitches. This has given Boeing an opening to perhaps sell more planes due to years of criticism levied at Lockheed’s aircraft.
Which brings us back to Shanahan. He says he sold all his financial interests in Boeing and the defense sector writ large. But the ethics investigation against him is based around whether he, while serving as the Pentagon’s No. 2, repeatedly championed Boeing’s plane while trashing Lockheed Martin’s in official conversations.
That’s what makes his comments to Baier so intriguing.
First, he hit the F-35 again, citing its high price and taxpayer expense. That’s well within his rights to do as the acting defense secretary — as long as it’s not done to serve Boeing’s interests. But for him to bring up Lockheed’s problems, without being specifically asked about them by Baier, sounds some alarm bells.
What’s more, he denied that he improperly criticized the F-35 and boosted Boeing planes in his current job, even though the probe is specifically about whether he did those things in his last job. In other words, he didn’t directly rebut allegations the Pentagon’s ethics team is investigating.
It is of course completely possible that Shanahan is telling the truth: that he only lambasted the F-35 for its myriad issues, and not because he wants Boeing to win more contracts.
Even if that’s the case, though, the acting secretary would do well to avoid any perception that he’s a Boeing lackey. The Fox News interview, unfortunately for him, didn’t help too much in that regard.