As Shanahan told reporters Thursday after getting the nod, “You have to spin a lot of plates.”
Still, he also faces skepticism in Congress, particularly from Democrats, who have fought him over his proposed budget and plans for border-wall funding; threatened his flexibility to move money among different defense projects; questioned why he wants to create an entirely new bureaucratic entity to deal with threats from space; and raised questions about ethics given his former association with Boeing. Republicans are likely to have fewer qualms; despite McCain’s scolding at his first confirmation hearing, not a single Republican voted against Shanahan, and he was confirmed with 92 votes. In February, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham publicly threatened to be Shanahan’s “adversary” if, as Trump had initially ordered, the military withdrew all its troops from Syria by the end of April. But Trump has since changed his mind, and by early May by there was still no clear timetable for the drawdown.
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Through all that, Shanahan also spent about five weeks under a Pentagon ethics investigation concerning his ties to his former employer Boeing, which happens to be one of the Pentagon’s biggest contractors. That investigation ultimately cleared him, removing the key obstacle to his nomination.
Indeed, it was Boeing that helped stall Shanahan’s nomination as the Pentagon inspector general looked into allegations that he had sought to promote the company and disparage its commercial rival Lockheed Martin. The inspector general issued a report at the end of April that cleared him of wrongdoing, but Boeing faces a separate outcry over its role in two recent fatal crashes of 737 Max jets. Though Shanahan worked on a different Boeing model, his association with the company also reportedly contributed to Trump’s hesitation to pick him permanently.
The “acting” role was a distinction he shared with numerous other Trump officials, including several in the higher ranks of the Defense Department itself. Politico reported at the end of April that a third of the 24 senior civilian jobs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense had only acting, unconfirmed officials serving in them, putting the organization at a disadvantage in interagency policy debates. Shanahan’s unprecedented stretch in the “acting” role also irritated lawmakers—James Inhofe, the Republican chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told CNN nearly a month ago that he wanted Shanahan nominated “right now” and that “we’re long past the point where we should have an acting in that position.”
The ethics report itself, for which the inspector general interviewed 34 witnesses, including Mattis and Shanahan, might also prompt questions in confirmation hearings. It found that Shanahan adhered to ethics guidelines and observed a detailed screening process to keep him insulated from Boeing-related matters. But in investigating allegations that Shanahan had “repeatedly dumped on” the much-criticized F-35 fighter jet, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the inspector general reached a narrow conclusion. “Mr. Shanahan told us,” the report says, “that he did not say that the F-35 aircraft was ‘f---ed up.’ He told us that the F-35 aircraft is ‘awesome.’ Mr. Shanahan told us that he said the F-35 program was ‘f---ed up.’” The distinction, according to the report, means he was criticizing not a Boeing rival’s specific product but the way Lockheed Martin and the Pentagon were managing the program, especially its expense. The importance of this distinction might not be obvious to lawmakers worried about ethical issues.