What exactly is Patrick Shanahan’s status within the Trump administration? After announcing in early May that Donald Trump wanted to take the “acting” off of his “acting Secretary of Defense” title, his future looks murkier than ever. Earlier this week Trump suggested that he’d made the formal nomination, but a “We’ll see” today has Politico scratching its collective head:
Trump on Tuesday indicated Shanahan’s nomination was a done deal, even though it’s been more than a month since the White House announced on May 9 that Trump intended to nominate Shanahan for the job, and he has yet to make it official.
“Well, I have, defense secretary. I have. It’s done. I put it out,” Trump said on Tuesday when asked why he hasn’t made the nomination official. “Yeah, it’s done from the standpoint of the nomination. Wait, wait, wait, Pat Shanahan was nominated two weeks ago. Yeah, no, I put it out, I put it out officially. Now he has to go through the process. He’s now going through.”
But on Friday, he didn’t sound so definitive during an interview with “Fox & Friends.”
“He’s been recommended, now he has to be approved by Congress. We are going to see,” Trump said, adding again, “We are going to see, Pat Shanahan has been recommended for the job.”
Actually, it sounds as though Trump believes he’s already made the formal nomination. “Now he has to be approved by Congress” would follow from Tuesday’s “It’s done, I put it out.” His “we are going to see” comment appears to refer to Senate approval, not a pending decision of his own.
Politico’s confusion is still understandable, as was the question itself from Fox & Friends. If Trump has formally nominated Shanahan, there’s no evidence of it. A search of the official White House website for “Shanahan nomination” only turns up his June 2017 nomination for Deputy Secretary of Defense, his previous position. Likewise, a search of nominations at the Senate Armed Services Committee website shows only the June 2017 appointment, followed by his confirmation in July 2017 on a 92-7 vote.
The question came up because NBC News reported earlier this week that Trump might be having second thoughts about the appointment. There hasn’t been a solid explanation for rethinking the appointment, but the assumption in the media is that Trump might not have liked Shanahan’s reaction to the controversy over the White House Military Office’s bizarre request to hide the USS John McCain during Trump’s Memorial Day review of the fleet in Japan. Shanahan made his displeasure known at the time, with someone at the Pentagon leaking his rebuke to the WHMO to refrain from politicizing the military.
At the time, I predicted that might have repercussions for Shanahan’s expected formal nomination:
It’s possible, though, that Shanahan’s attempt to throw the White House under the bus might not go over so well with the administration. At the same time Shanahan was making his displeasure clear, Trump’s chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was telling Chuck Todd that it was no big deal …
It’s “not an unreasonable thing” to request a naval vessel move out of the president’s view because he doesn’t like the namesake’s son? Seriously? Of all the positions the White House could take, that’s, uh … one of them, I guess. It seems surpassingly strange that Mulvaney just doesn’t follow normal embarrassment-recovery mode by removing the Military Office staffer that created the problem. It’s hardly “silly” to deal with this by dispensing with the dispensable … unless that request came from higher up the food chain after all, from someone a lot less “dispensable.” If that’s the case, it would explain Mulvaney’s seemingly blasé attitude — and that might not bode well for Shanahan’s very public get-tough position.
All of this was prior to the provocation in the Gulf of Oman, however. With the potential for significant hostilities with Iran rising by the day, Trump can’t really afford to shuffle his Pentagon lineup now. As it is, Shanahan will be peppered with questions about preparations for war and policy issues about security for oil shipments. Bringing someone else up to speed on those priorities would take weeks if not months, a delay that Trump can’t afford if Iran raises the stakes even further.
At this point, the White House needs to remove the ambiguity. If Shanahan hasn’t yet been formally nominated, they need to close that loop — or get on with another one ASAP.