WASHINGTON — The Senate’s top defense lawmaker is confident that President Donald Trump will nominate a permanent defense secretary replacement in the near future. But he doesn’t think it will be the man currently leading the Pentagon.
“We need to have a Secretary of Defense, and I anticipate we will,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., told reporters during a roundtable event on Capitol Hill Tuesday. “If you’re an acting, you don’t have the force you need in the office … I think (Trump) is going to nominate somebody.”
The comments come after White House and Pentagon officials in recent weeks have suggested that Trump could go without a permanent replacement for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who resigned from the post in December over policy and philosophical differences with the commander-in-chief.
Patrick Shanahan was installed as acting Secretary of Defense on Jan. 1, and he has been praised by Trump for his work in the weeks since then. The president has also said that Shanahan “could be there for a long time” but has not indicated if he will nominate him for the permanent Cabinet role.
On Tuesday, Inhofe said he does not think Shanahan will get that nomination. He said bluntly that Shanahan lacks the “humility” of Mattis but would not describe his concerns beyond that.
Shanahan is a former Boeing executive who was confirmed as deputy secretary of defense in early 2017. He spent much of the last year focused on reforming internal processes at the Pentagon. Since his ascension to the top role, questions have surfaced about how his previous business ties could influence military decisions.
Inhofe downplayed those concerns, though he did note that those business conflicts have the potential “to become very partisan” when Shanahan testifies before the committee in coming weeks.
For his part, Shanahan said he is “happy to serve the country in any capacity the president asks me to.”
“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. I’ll do the job the same way and it’s a pleasure to serve in this role," Shanahan said.
The questions about Pentagon leadership come as members of Congress are launching their fiscal 2020 budget process without a formal defense budget plan from the White House and without a permanent civilian leader for the military.
The budget draft was originally scheduled to be released last week, but it has been delayed until mid-March. Inhofe said he’s still hopeful those issues won’t disrupt his committee’s annual work on the defense authorization bill.
“We did a good job last year (passing the bill in August), and I think we can do a good job this year,” he said. “We have to do authorization before appropriations anyways. Off the floor by the end of June. That’s what we anticipate.
“We’ve already had a host of posture hearings. We’re busy. We’re doing a lot more than a lot of other committees.”
The chairman said he is eyeing $750 billion as the appropriate level of funding for the Defense Department next fiscal year, which would represent a significant boost from the $716 billion budget for fiscal 2019. But he said that money is needed to build upon readiness and modernization efforts started by Congress in the last two budget cycles.
House Democrats have been discussing significantly lower funding levels, which could make for lengthy budget fight between the chambers throughout the summer.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.