Pentagon Clears Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan Of Wrongdoing

Apr 25, 2019
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Patrick Shanahan has been acting defense secretary since late last year, when Jim Mattis resigned over President Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. Trump still has not named a permanent replacement, in part because Shanahan, a leading candidate, has been under investigation for ethics violations. Today the Pentagon's inspector general cleared Shanahan of wrongdoing.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us now. And Tom, give us the details on this investigation.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, first a little background - before coming to the Pentagon as deputy defense secretary, Shanahan was an executive at Boeing - which does a lot of defense work - for basically his entire adult life. And there were allegations that in staff meetings at the Pentagon, he was trashing an aircraft made by a Boeing competitor. And that's the F-35 made by Lockheed. And also, he was pushing top generals to buy more aircraft made by Boeing, principally the F-18 and the F-15. Now, that would obviously be a conflict, and Shanahan signed ethics agreements when he got to the Pentagon, saying he would recuse himself from any decisions having to do with Boeing. So here is Shanahan at a congressional hearing last month when he was questioned about the allegations.

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PATRICK SHANAHAN: I am biased towards performance. I am biased towards giving the taxpayer their money's worth. And the F-35 unequivocally, I can say, has a lot of opportunity for more performance.

CORNISH: What did the inspector general find?

BOWMAN: Well, the IG fully exonerated Shanahan and said, quote, "we did not substantiate any of the allegations." So first of all, everyone complains about the F-35. It has a history of cost overruns, performance issues. Shanahan was in good company in complaining about the F-35.

And the Pentagon did just place an order for more of those Boeing F-15 fighters as well as the Boeing F-18. But those decisions, according to the IG, were made by others. The IG spoke with 33 witnesses, including the most senior Pentagon officials, and reviewed 5,600 pages of unclassified documents, 1,700 pages of classified documents in reaching the decision - but again, exonerated Shanahan across the board.

CORNISH: He's been an acting defense secretary for a long time. What happens now?

BOWMAN: Well, I'm told he could be nominated by President Trump as soon as tonight. Shanahan is at the White House. And he's been acting secretary for 115 days today, by far the longest anyone has been defense secretary in an acting capacity since the job was created back in the 1940s. And now that can be a problem, being an acting secretary. People in the Pentagon, of course, will listen to you and obey you. But it's hard with allies. They may say - hey, we're not sure if this guy will remain as head of the Defense Department. So we're not sure if we can listen to him or believe what he says.

Now, earlier this year there was talk that Trump would choose someone else for the job. Retired Army General Jack Keane was mentioned, as well as Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Both turned down the job. Then there was talk Trump was comfortable with Shanahan, and his nomination seemed imminent. And then this investigation happened and put everything on hold.

CORNISH: What sort of defense secretary would he be?

BOWMAN: Well, certainly far different than his predecessor, retired Marine General Jim Mattis who, of course, had wide experience in military issues, foreign policy. Shanahan is an engineer and businessman by background. And Mattis often challenged the president on everything from bringing back torture to canceling training missions with South Korea, removing troops in Syria. That led to Mattis' resignation.

And the sense is that Shanahan won't be involved in policy. That will likely be left up to others. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton - they'll likely be the drivers of policy across the board on North Korea, Syria and Afghanistan.

CORNISH: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.