Angered by Defense Secretary James N. Mattis’ harsh rebuke last week, President Trump on Sunday said he is ousting Mattis from his post two months earlier than planned and is instead naming the No. 2 Pentagon official to be acting secretary.
Trump thus will have an acting White House chief of staff, acting attorney general and acting secretary of Defense as he heads into his third year in office, reflecting a tumultuous top-level churn as the administration grapples with a partial government shutdown, a plummeting stock market and the president’s mounting legal woes.
Trump announced that Patrick Shanahan, who spent three decades as an executive at Boeing before he became Mattis’ deputy last year, will lead the Pentagon starting Jan. 1. Unlike Mattis, Shanahan has not served in the military and has little foreign policy or government experience.
Trump’s incoming acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, on Sunday dismissed the notion that the White House is in disarray.
“I don’t think there’s concern that the presidency is in crisis,” Mulvaney said on “Fox News Sunday.” “This is what having a president who is nontraditional looks like. He’s not going to be an ordinary president. That’s not what people wanted when they elected him.”
As deputy secretary of Defense, Shanahan handled day-to-day operations for the vast military bureaucracy. He mostly stayed out of Mattis’ policy clashes with the White House over Trump’s orders to pull out of Syria and cut troop levels in Afghanistan, among other fractious debates.
Shanahan’s most prominent role at the Pentagon — one that likely appealed to Trump — has been to draft plans for a new military service for outer space, an idea Trump has promoted to wild applause at political rallies. The Pentagon tentatively plans to keep the “space force” in the Air Force, much as the Marine Corps operates within the U.S. Navy.
Shanahan also has overseen the Pentagon’s weapons acquisition programs, which have grown substantially under Trump. He was confirmed by the Senate in mid-2017 but only after a bruising confirmation hearing led by John McCain, the late Republican senator from Arizona, who was then chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
McCain criticized Shanahan’s written answers to the committee and questioned whether confirming a senior executive from a major defense contractor as the No. 2 Pentagon official was putting “the fox… into the henhouse.”
Mattis resigned in protest Thursday after Trump overruled him and ordered all U.S. troops out of Syria, the latest policy dispute between the two. Brett McGurk, the top U.S. envoy to the international coalition fighting Islamic State, also resigned in protest over Trump’s abrupt Syria decision.
In a tweet late Saturday, Trump disparaged the longtime diplomat and Mideast expert, pointing out that McGurk was also planning to leave his post in February. “Grandstander?” the president wrote.
Trump, who initially praised Mattis when he resigned, took a swipe at the retired four-star Marine general Saturday, noting that President Obama had removed him as head of U.S. Central Command.
“I gave him a second chance,” the president wrote. “Some thought I shouldn’t.”
I am pleased to announce that our very talented Deputy Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, will assume the title of Acting Secretary of Defense starting January 1, 2019. Patrick has a long list of accomplishments while serving as Deputy, & previously Boeing. He will be great!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2018
In his resignation letter, Mattis delivered a stinging reproach to Trump’s worldview, saying the president cast off military alliances and abandoned allies at America’s peril.
Mattis said he would step down on Feb. 28 to allow a “smooth transition” to his successor and to testify before Congress next year in annual hearings on military issues. He also offered to attend a NATO meeting in February, a move that helped reassure allies anxious about the turmoil in Washington.
But Trump, reportedly furious at positive news coverage of Mattis’ letter, said Shanahan will step in almost immediately.
“I am pleased to announce that our very talented Deputy Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, will assume the title of Acting Secretary of Defense starting January 1, 2019,” Trump wrote. “Patrick has a long list of accomplishments while serving as Deputy, & previously Boeing. He will be great!”
Shanahan’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino, confirmed he would accept the appointment.
Past Defense secretaries have served until their successors were nominated. But none in recent years resigned over such sharp disagreements as Mattis did.
Even some Republicans were unsettled by the jolting events of recent days.
“So much dysfunction,” said Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, citing “disturbing” implications for foreign and domestic policy in the recent turmoil. Appearing on Fox News, he said Trump doesn’t understand presidents “can’t just get everything they want.”
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) faulted what he called Trump’s decision to withdraw troops “prematurely” from Syria. Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Toomey also said Mattis’ views on the need for international alliances aligned with most Republicans’ views more than Trump’s isolationist worldview.
Criticism from another senior Republican apparently irked the president.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the retiring chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CNN’s “State of the Nation” that Trump “knows that he made a mistake” on the Syria pullout but that the president tends to “dig in and double down,” especially when he realizes he has erred.
Trump then tweeted that Corker “badmouths” him because he refused to support Corker in a reelection bid last year. Corker, who did not run for reelection, jabbed Trump back on Twitter: “Just like Mexico is paying for the wall.”
The partial shutdown, which began Saturday and has idled hundreds of thousands of federal workers just before Christmas, was triggered when Trump rejected a short-term congressional fix because it did not meet his demand for $5 billion for a border wall.
Mulvaney said the shutdown could extend into the new year, when Democrats will take control of the House, although Trump presumably will have even less political leverage then.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who recently took himself out of the running for the chief of staff job after meeting with Trump, said the 72-year-old president’s go-it-alone style was unlikely to change.
“When people get older, they become more and more convinced of the fact that what they’re doing is the right thing, and it becomes harder to convince them otherwise,” Christie said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Christie didn’t disparage unpredictability as a tactic, but he questioned whether Trump’s freewheeling style helped further his policy goals.
“One of the things I’ve often said to the president is … there has to be a strategy that has an endgame,” he said. “I don’t know what the endgame is here. It hasn’t been articulated.”