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Trump defense pick expected to face tense confirmation

The Hill logo The Hill 5/26/2019 Rebecca Kheel
a group of people standing in a room: Trump defense pick expected to face tense confirmation © Getty Trump defense pick expected to face tense confirmation

Patrick Shanahan is facing questions about whether he is too deferential to President Trump as he awaits confirmation to be the full-time Defense secretary.

Shanahan's predecessor, James Mattis, was lauded by lawmakers in both parties as one of the so-called "adults in the room" known for pushing back on Trump's most impulsive decisions.

By contrast, Shanahan has become the face of some of Trump's most controversial moves, such as using military funding to build a border wall.

With worries mounting in Congress about the potential for war with Iran - one of the toughest tests yet for the Pentagon head - Democrats are signaling they'll use Shanahan's confirmation to question him about how much he's willing to rein in the president.

"After Mattis, somebody with that kind of experience, and then to have [Shanahan], there are concerns that I have, especially as we're in a pretty tense situation with Iran," Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said. "I'd like to have more confidence in who's going to be making decisions, although I know whoever it is, it won't be the secretary of Defense."

On Friday, Shanahan approved sending 1,500 U.S. troop to the Middle East to bolster protection of forces already there. The deployment comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

Republicans are expected to line up behind Shanahan, meaning he will likely be confirmed in the GOP-led Senate. But senators in both parties expect a tense confirmation, with Democrats grilling him on Trump policies they vehemently oppose.

"He's supposed to enact the president's intent," a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Hill in pushing back on the characterization of Shanahan being too deferential to Trump.

The official said the Defense secretary's job is to provide options and then carry out the president's decision.

"He's supposed to be deferential to the president. That's our system. No one ever accused McNamara of being too deferential to LBJ, Carter of Obama, etc," the official said.

One factor that could contribute to tense exchanges during Shanahan's confirmation: two Democrats on the panel interviewing him - Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) - are running for their party's 2020 presidential nomination, and a viral moment could help them stand out from the pack of 20-plus White House contenders.

Warren told The Hill this past week she opposes Shanahan's nomination, saying "it's not about politics." She pointed to Shanahan's more than 30 years working at Boeing before becoming deputy Defense secretary in July 2017.

"This is a revolving door issue," Warren said. "Someone who has no government experience, no experience outside making a profit for Boeing, should not be in charge of the Department of Defense. The American people should not have to wonder when the secretary of Defense makes a decision whether it is to benefit his former or perhaps future employer or to protect the safety and security of the United States of America."

An inspector general investigation -- opened in part after referrals from Warren's office -- cleared Shanahan of allegations he violated his ethics agreement and improperly favored Boeing while serving in government.

The defense official said he thinks the inspector general findings are "the final word on his business ties."

The official said Shanahan understands senators have "legitimate concerns" about his "policy chops" and that he is preparing to answer those questions at his confirmation hearing.

Shanahan's confirmation hearing is expected in June, but has not officially been scheduled since his paperwork has not yet been sent to the Senate.

The official, asked about the status of the paperwork Friday, said Shanahan "started the background investigations and should be ready by next week."

It has been more than two weeks since the White House announced Trump would nominate Shanahan to be the permanent Defense secretary. He took over as acting Pentagon head in January.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has said he will schedule Shanahan's hearing as soon as a week after receiving the necessary paperwork, in line with committee rules about notifying members of the panel about a hearing at least a week beforehand.

As he prepares for the hearing, the defense official said, Shanahan has been doing individual office visits to build a "network of advocates" in the Senate.

The official said that Shanahan is expecting to face questions on his decision to shuffle defense funding around to build Trump's border wall without congressional approval, a move that has left Democrats particularly incensed.

"I have never been so disappointed in any nominee for secretary of Defense," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said after Shanahan's nomination. "He has no experience, no apparent insight or expertise, and his surreptitious movement of funds within the Defense Department budget to build a wall, I think is irresponsible and reprehensible."

Pressed on if he is definitively opposed to Shanahan, Blumenthal said, "I don't know what he could say that would change my mind."

Inhofe has dismissed Democratic concerns as partisanship.

"Democrats don't like Republicans," Inhofe told reporters earlier this month.

Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the top Democrat on the committee, argued it is common for a nomination in the middle of a president's term to become a referendum on the president's policies.

"Like everyone who's been appointed mid-term, it's not just the individual qualifications, it's the president's policies," Reed said. "I think the border issue will come up, particularly because it's being funded by taking what was previously defense priorities and now they don't seem to be so much priorities."

Reed sparred with Shanahan over the border issue at a budget hearing earlier this year, demanding Shanahan send Congress a list of potentially defunded military construction projects by the end of the day. Shanahan agreed to, but didn't meet the deadline, prompting another angry statement from Reed. Shanahan sent the list a few days later.

Asked if there was anything Shanahan could say about the border to win his support, Reed said "the border issue's tough."

"It's very hard to justify in one sense asking for military projects, saying they're critical to our national defense, and then on the other saying but we'll send it to the border even though the [Northern Command] commander has stated bluntly that there's no military threat," Reed said. "That's a contradiction that's hard to resolve."

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