Congressional insiders say powerful lawmakers remain unwilling to throw their support behind Mr. Shanahan after a two-month audition, and it’s not because of any policy missteps or even concern about his ability to navigate the monumental job of running the U.S. military.
Instead, senators are measuring Mr. Shanahan — a former Boeing executive with no government experience before joining the Pentagon in July 2017 — against Mr. Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps general and towering figure who commanded enormous respect inside the Defense Department, on Capitol Hill and from governments around the world.
“Mattis was my hero, and I haven’t seen anyone that’s come along that’s in my opinion as good as Mattis,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I’m still at that last holdout, as that I’m the biggest fan of Mattis.”
President Trump has said he is in no rush to name a permanent defense secretary. As the process unfolds, military analysts say, the deep admiration for Mr. Mattis — who had no problem breaking with the president on key issues such as torture, troops on the U.S.-Mexico border and withdrawing from Syria — underscores the difficulty Mr. Shanahan faces.
But the president, analysts say, wants the opposite: a subordinate who is capable of running the Pentagon on a day-to-day basis while deferring to the commander in chief on every major policy decision.
The opposing views are coming to a head as pressure builds on the White House to put forth a defense secretary nominee, whom the Armed Services Committee will weigh before the full Senate votes on confirmation. Mr. Shanahan is seen to covet the position.
“With this president, [lawmakers] very much want someone who is willing to disagree. The tension, of course, is the president does not want someone who disagrees,” said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a retired Marine Corps colonel.
“Trump values personal loyalty very highly. He’s looking for someone who will do what he tells them,” Mr. Cancian said.
Lawmakers appear uncomfortable with the idea of a defense secretary who is unable or unwilling to push back against a White House that has come under heavy fire for foreign policy moves on Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Mr. Shanahan already has clashed with members of Congress who are angry that he hasn’t bucked the president in the way Mr. Mattis often did. Mr. Mattis submitted his resignation in November in protest of Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria.
At a high-level global security conference in Munich last month, Mr. Shanahan was pressed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and other lawmakers on whether he would carry out Mr. Trump’s order to begin drawing down troops in Syria. The acting defense secretary confirmed that he would follow the president’s command.
The conversation led Mr. Graham to declare himself an “adversary of Shanahan’s policy to support complete withdrawal from Syria.”
‘It changes every day’
Two weeks after the Munich conference, lawmakers still are lukewarm at best on Mr. Shanahan’s prospects, as well as to the question of whether he’s actually in line for the nomination.
“It depends on what day you ask and it changes every day,” Mr. Inhofe told reporters Tuesday.
Since a permanent defense secretary must be confirmed by the Senate, a lack of support from such prominent Republicans as Mr. Graham or Mr. Inhofe could sink his chances.
But some analysts counter that Mr. Shanahan’s successes in navigating some thorny issues that have divided the White House and Capitol Hill Republicans prove his ability to thread the political needle. They point to Mr. Trump’s recent declaration of a national emergency on the southern border and his plan to use military construction funds to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Mr. Shanahan was careful not to publicly disagree with the president while still arguing that he’d make the final call on what military projects, if any, were shelved to pay for the wall. His stance reassured lawmakers who were worried that military projects in their districts could be raided overnight by the president.
“I think I have a lot of discretion,” Mr. Shanahan said last month when asked about his authority over the matter. “I’m not required to do anything.”
Analysts also say the acting defense secretary recently pulled off the near-miraculous feat of giving Mr. Trump the Space Force the president desired while not triggering a backlash on Capitol Hill or a bitter turf war inside the Pentagon. While the White House wanted the Space Force to be a full sixth branch of the armed forces, Mr. Shanahan negotiated a compromise.
The Space Force now will be housed within the Air Force, much like the Marine Corps‘ status as part of the Navy.
“Everybody kind of seems happy with how that ended,” said retired Army Gen. Thomas Spoehr, now the director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. “It had an ugly beginning and a middle, but now I don’t see anybody coming out against Space Force. And he was the main guy behind Space Force.”
Despite such developments, some experts are circumspect toward Mr. Shanahan’s ability to simultaneously lead the defense department and effectively represent America’s interests abroad — complex dual responsibilities that have been known to unravel, or at least exhaust, even the most seasoned of confirmed Pentagon chiefs.
While most agree the former Boeing executive performed well overall during the recent Munich conference, as well as at a defense ministers meeting in Brussels last month, few question that Mr. Shanahan is simply not as well-known or respected as Mr. Mattis.
“He didn’t have that” experience, Mr. Spoehr said, referring to the former defense secretary’s bonafides as a retired Marine Corps general who spent decades navigating sensitive relationships with U.S. military allies.
“But I think he’s getting that. When he was over at the NATO meeting, he didn’t commit any unforced errors.”
Even occasional critics such as Mr. Inhofe believe the acting secretary’s lack of stature stems mostly from his job title. “I know the president says all the time he likes to deal with the temporary people in his administration,” said the senator, who suggested Mr. Trump should put aside such thinking when it comes to the Pentagon.
The reason, Mr. Inhofe said, is that other nations likely won’t recognize a U.S. defense secretary’s true status if he is in the position only on an acting basis. “They have to know that he is the one who’s calling the shots and until he becomes permanent, they don’t think that,” the senator said.
Others point out that while Mr. Mattis is deserving of the respect he’s garnered in Congress and abroad, he was something of an outlier as defense secretary. Many past Pentagon chiefs haven’t come with such a strong military background, and in some ways, Mr. Shanahan could be viewed as a more traditional pick.
“We have not,” observed Mr. Spoehr, “had many James Mattis‘ as secretary of defense.”
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