Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan may be about to have the single most important day of his Pentagon career when he sits down before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday morning for televised hearing on the $700-billion plus defense budget.
His performance at the hearing may determine whether President Donald Trump finally nominates him to become the permanent Pentagon chief, according to several defense and administration officials that have spoken to CNN.
On Wednesday, the President was asked again by the White House press corps about Shanahan. “He is doing a great job. Shanahan is doing a fantastic job as secretary–as the acting secretary,” Trump said. But when asked if he would nominate him to the job permanently, Trump still demurred. “Well I’m just telling you he’s doing a great job look at what we’ve done with respect to the caliphate in Syria I was told by our previous person that it was going to take 2 years to knock it out and I did it in 3 weeks once we started.”
The slam was apparently aimed at former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned late last year in protest after the President ordered a sudden withdrawal of all US troops from Syria. There is no indication that the goal of even defeating ISIS’s physical caliphate has been achieved in three weeks. In fact, US military officials warn that even after US backed fighters take back the last ISIS enclave, fighting will continue as committed ISIS fighters switch to becoming an insurgent attack force.
But it is the way Shanahan handles other key issues before the committee, especially Pentagon involvement in reprogramming defense funding for possible border barrier activity, that may be a determining factor in his relationship with the Senate Committee which would have to confirm his nomination.
If the hearing is a job audition, the committee’s powerful Republican chairman Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla) doesn’t seem to know it. “You would think that I would know if a decision were made & since I don’t know, that’s the answer. I keep hearing rumors.”
Observers will be watching to see if Senator’s bring up his career at Boeing with the company in the spotlight following the US decision on Wednesday to ground all 737 max jets in the aftermath of Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash. Shanahan has signed an ethics agreement which aims to ensure there are no conflicts of interest with Boeing while he is at the Pentagon.
Shanahan is expected to focus heavily on how defense spending is aimed at countering Russian and Chinese military advances including the modernization of their weapons, and advances in space and cyber operations.
But Shanahan could also have to address challenges laid out in recent days by some of the country’s most senior commanders. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, head of the European Command warned on Wednesday: “We are in close proximity with Russian forces in a number of areas today, and at times they’re very aggressive in their activity. And that I’m concerned about. We have very disciplined forces but Russia will occasionally put, particularly our ships’ captains in a tight spot with their maneuvers.”
And even if Shanahan wants the Pentagon to refocus away from fighting violent extremism, he may not be able to. Gen. Joseph Votel, soon to retire as head of the Central Command which oversees Middle East operations, has warned on numerous occasions the fight against ISIS is far from over.
“Recent observations by our men and women on the ground highlight that the ISIS population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remain unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized. We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and, of course, their toxic ideology,” he told Congress last week.
Still Shanahan watchers are waiting for a nod from the President. No one really knows whether Trump will choose him and when the decision will be made.
But there is a potential window. The President is scheduled to come to the Pentagon Friday for a meeting with Shanahan and the Joint Chiefs in the tank, the secure Pentagon conference room. If it goes well observers suggest the President could make an announcement when the meeting adjourns.