WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump intends to nominate acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan to remain in the top Pentagon job, the White House said Thursday, a pointed reversal from an era when the president relied primarily on generals to craft military and foreign policy.
Shanahan "has proven over the last several months that he is beyond qualified to lead the Department of Defense, and he will continue to do an excellent job," said White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.
The longtime Boeing executive has served as acting defense secretary since his predecessor, Jim Mattis, resigned late last year over differences with the president. He was recently cleared by the Defense Department inspector general of allegations that he was partial to his former employer while serving in the Pentagon's No. 2 job under Mattis.
The announcement comes at a challenging time when the Trump administration has been grappling with potential confrontations with Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. Before joining the Pentagon in 2017, Shanahan spent his career in the private sector with little foreign policy experience and no military background.
But for more than 18 months, Shanahan served as deputy defense secretary, overseeing budgets, weaponry and technology, in addition to spearheading the drive for Trump's Space Force.
Shanahan said in a statement that he was honored by Trump's announcement.
"If confirmed by the Senate, I will continue the aggressive implementation of our National Defense Strategy," his statement said. "I remain committed to modernizing the force so our remarkable Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines have everything they need to keep our military lethal and our country safe."
Shanahan would oversee the armed forces at a time when the military is seeking to wind down insurgent wars, preparing for intensified competition with China and Russia and trying to shield itself from partisan acrimony surrounding the president's use of the military on the southern border.
Shanahan would take over permanently from a defense secretary who resigned partly over decisions that Trump subsequently reversed - namely, demands to withdraw from Syria and drawdown troops in Afghanistan - highlighting the challenges of working for a president who has displayed impulsive and mercurial foreign policy decision-making.
The U.S. military is now planning to keep a small residual contingent of troops in Syria and hasn't made any moves to execute a significant drawdown of forces in Afghanistan amid peace talks with the Taliban.
Critics have raised concerns about whether Shanahan will have the ability or inclination to steer the president away from destructive decisions. In his resignation letter, Mattis, a widely respected retired Marine general who built relationships in Washington over four decades in uniform, cited his disagreement with Trump's skeptical view of traditional defense alliances.
Since he took over on Jan. 1, Shanahan has sought to continue the approach Mattis staked out by voicing regular support for the U.S. partnership with NATO and other allies. But he appears less inclined than his predecessor to challenge the president on significant strategic military policy moves.
Asked during his first formal news conference at the Pentagon whether he would be prepared to tell the president "no" if necessary, Shanahan responded diplomatically. "I'm always prepared to give the president feedback," he said.
In Mattis, Trump selected the rare defense secretary who spent his career in the military and proved willing to throw around his stature and buck other advisers to the president if he felt necessary. In Shanahan, the president has found much of the opposite - a corporate warrior who has trained his sights internally on the Pentagon and succeeded in speaking the president's business language, but so far has found himself outmatched by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton when it comes to Washington connections and foreign policy experience.
The result is a Pentagon leader who, if confirmed, would likely continue to focus on restructuring the military at a time when the new defense strategy calls for paying more attention to great-power rivalry and placing less emphasis on counterinsurgency.
During his first news conference as department head in January, Shanahan said he wouldn't be traveling as much as Mattis did and would focus his time on fixing some of the "seams" he noticed in the Pentagon bureaucracy, where many officials for years have hoped for a business-oriented manager who could fix a problematic procurement process.
He said he wouldn't be changing the strategy that Mattis set out. "No change to the priorities," Shanahan said. "No change to the strategy. It's really, 'Go faster on the implementation and execution.' "
The son of a major in the U.S. Army who became a police officer, Shanahan grew up in Washington state and studied engineering and business at the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He joined Boeing in 1986 and spent more than three decades with the aerospace and defense company, where he managed commercial airline and defense programs. Among them were the 787 Dreamliner, the company's missile defense systems and rotorcraft aircraft including the Osprey, Apache and Chinook.
This article was written by Missy Ryan and Paul Sonne, reporters for The Washington Post.