The head of a key Senate committee gave the strongest signal yet that acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will not be getting the job permanently and that President Trump will select someone else to replace Pentagon chief James Mattis.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, strongly hinted that Mr. Shanahan, the former Boeing executive who replaced Mr. Mattis, will not be nominated to lead the Defense Department.
“If you’re an ‘acting,’ you don’t have the force you need in the office,” Mr. Inhofe said. “I think [President Trump] is going to nominate somebody. … We need to have a secretary of defense, and I anticipate we will.”
When asked whether Mr. Shanahan, who was named deputy defense secretary in June 2017, will go through the confirmation process for the top job, Sen. Inhofe replied, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
His comments came on perhaps the most high-profile week of Mr. Shanahan’s brief tenure, in which he made a surprise visits to Afghanistan Monday and Iraq Tuesday to discuss the U.S. combat missions there. His talks in Baghdad came in the wake of comments by President Trump on the U.S. military mission there that had greatly angered many in the Iraqi ruling coalition.
The Oklahoma Republican praised former Mr. Mattis, a decorated Marine general, for possessing “humility” in his role as head of the department, and said that Mr. Shanahan, who had no military experience, lacks that quality.
“I liked the last one,” Mr. Inhofe said, referring to Mr. Mattis. “He had a very rare talent.”
Mr. Inhofe’s opinion carries a great deal of weight because any defense secretary nominee will face a confirmation hearing before his committee.
Mr. Mattis left his post abruptly after simmering tensions with Mr. Trump over his tenure, capped by a disagreement with the president’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria after declaring Islamic State forces there had been defeated.
Earlier this week on his trip to Afghanistan, Mr. Shanahan met with U.S. troops and top government officials in Kabul, amid talks of a possible peace deal with the Taliban movement that could mean a major drawdown of U.S. troops in the country. It was Mr. Shanahan’s first trip abroad since taking over the Pentagon’s top job last month.
Speaking to reporters during his trip, which some saw as an audition for a permanent appointment, Mr. Shanahan said he was focused on the job at hand.
“The Department of Defense is an amazing institution. And whether there’s an ‘acting’ next to your name or not, it’s the same job,” he said.
“I’ll do the job the same way and it’s a pleasure to serve in this role. … I serve at the pleasure of the president and I’ll serve in any capacity he asks me to serve in.”
President Trump has said in the past he is “in no rush” to choose a permanent replacement for Mr. Mattis, and has even mused in the past that he at times prefers “acting” Cabinet officials because they give him more “flexibility.” Mr. Shanahan has publicly backed Mr. Trump’s order to deploy U.S. troops to bolster security along the Mexican border, a mission for which Mr. Mattis reportedly had deep misgivings.
Mr. Trump has repeatedly expressed support for Mr. Shanahan, and disputed prior reports that he would not be tapped to lead the department, saying he “is doing a great job!”In December, he told reporters Mr. Shanahan is “a respected man. He could be there for a long time.”
The White House did not respond to The Washington Times’ request for comment.