His predecessor, retired Marine Gen. and war hero James N. Mattis, was confirmed by an overwhelming 99-1 vote in the Senate.
But Patrick M. Shanahan, who was Mr. Mattis’s No. 2 at the Pentagon, will face a much tougher road to become President Trump’s defense secretary, as skeptical lawmakers zero in on his lack of military experience, his long career with top defense contractor Boeing and his willingness to carry out his boss’ controversial orders.
Mr. Shanahan, tapped by the president last week to become permanent Pentagon chief after four months in an acting role, will face an intense interrogation from lawmakers over the continued presence of U.S. troops on the southern border, the Defense Department’s transgender policy, America’s growing military posture toward Iran, and a host of other socially and geopolitically fraught issues.
Analysts and military insiders say it remains to be seen whether Mr. Shanahan is fully prepared for the onslaught he will endure when he appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee, especially the berating he is sure to get from Democrats eager to use the hearings as a vehicle to trash Mr. Trump’s foreign policy.
“I think he knows what he’s getting into, but he’s never been through anything like this before,” 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. “Mattis had outstanding national security credentials, so he got a lot of deference when he was before the senators. Shanahan won’t.
It’s unclear exactly when confirmation hearings will begin, though committee leaders intend to move as quickly as possible. Mr. Shanahan is already the longest-tenured acting defense secretary in history. Though Mr. Trump announced his nomination last week, committee sources say they have not received formal nomination paperwork from the White House.
Mr. Cancian and other observers expect Mr. Shanahan to ultimately be confirmed, but it’s clear that Democrats on the committee will use the hearings as a political soapbox to land blows on the nominee and the president. Mr. Shanahan may also be forced to detail his agreements and differences with his former boss, who clashed repeatedly with Mr. Trump before his abrupt resignation.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, has declared that Mr. Shanahan is one of the least qualified defense secretary nominees in recent history. Others are keeping more of an open mind but stress that they will conduct a more in-depth interview process than they did with Mr. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general who had built relationships across Washington long before joining the Trump administration.
Mr. Mattis resigned in December over deep disagreements with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, and lawmakers say they want to know whether Mr. Shanahan holds equally strong principles and a willingness to stand up to the president.
“Will Shanahan do what the previous secretary of defense did and offer the president the best of advice whether he thinks the president is going to like or not?” Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, told The Washington Times on Tuesday. “The committee had a very high degree of comfort … with Mattis. It would be unfair to expect the same thing of Shanahan. He’s less of a known quantity.”
Mr. Kaine said the hearings will constitute a “character assessment” of Mr. Shanahan.
In an interview with Fox News over the weekend, Mr. Shanahan, 55, said his business background — including three decades rising to the senior ranks at Boeing — prepared him for dealing with Mr. Trump and with senior administration officials such as National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, who had a prickly relationship with Mr. Mattis.
“What I like about working with the president is he’s a CEO,” Mr. Shanahan said. “I’ve worked for CEOs. He’s focused on outcomes and results. Will we always agree on everything? No. Are we focused, do we have the same interests and the same focus? Yes.”
As for standing up to other strong personalities in the administration, he said, “I think, what differentiates people who come from a corporate environment [is that] it is mandatory that people work together. … I have disagreements with people, I mean, that’s normal. And I bring those opinions to our discussions. At the end of the day, we have to have cohesion, we have to work as a team.”
Democrats, and perhaps some Republicans, are expected to pepper Mr. Shanahan with tough questions about U.S. contingency plans for military intervention in Iran, Venezuela and North Korea — each of which has had escalating tension with the administration in recent weeks.
Iran has threatened to restart key pieces of its nuclear weapons program, and Venezuela has resisted U.S. efforts to install a new government in Caracas. North Korea, meanwhile, has launched a series of provocative missile tests.
On those issues, analysts say, Mr. Shanahan is likely to offer as little detail as possible while stressing that he will listen to the advice of leaders in uniform when crafting specific strategies.
“He needs to talk about how he’s going to rely on the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff … versus using his own individual instincts and gut reactions,” said retired Army Gen. Thomas Spoehr, now director of the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. “He needs to make it sound like he’s representing the entirety of the Defense Department.”
One major weapon that Democrats could have wielded against the nominee has seemingly been taken off the table.
A Defense Department inspector general investigation into the issue concluded last month and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Analysts say Mr. Shanahan faces other obstacles in his confirmation process. The most notable is the backdrop of a presidential election race, which Mr. Mattis did not have in early 2017. Committee members Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York are among those seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.
“Everybody’s going to get their punches in,” Mr. Spoehr said. “This is going to be grand theater.”
Mr. Spoehr and other observers predict that the deployment of American troops on the border with Mexico will be the top issue as lawmakers question the president’s immigration policies. Many Democratic lawmakers are particularly incensed that Mr. Shanahan has embraced Mr. Trump’s plan to deploy active-duty U.S. troops to help defend the border and has accommodated White House requests to reallocate Defense Department budget dollars to finance parts of Mr. Trump’s promised border wall.
In the Fox interview, Mr. Shanahan seemed to largely agree with his boss on the severity of the crisis at the border.
“We have a crisis at the border, a national emergency declared by the president,” Mr. Shanahan said. “The commander in chief has given me a direct, legal order to secure the border. I’m securing the border.”
Democrats also are expected to hammer Mr. Shanahan on the Pentagon’s transgender policy, a galvanizing issue for liberals and one that could come to the forefront in the party’s presidential primary. Under the policy, U.S. service members looking to transition sexes could face forced retirement or be discharged from the military for medical reasons.
Although deep political and policy disagreements will emerge during the hearings, Republicans have been rallying around Mr. Shanahan. Analysts say that absent a major gaffe, he is likely to be confirmed — though not by the 99-1 vote Mr. Mattis received.
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