WASHINGTON — The sooner-than-expected departure of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis shifts the focus to President Donald Trump’s appointment of an acting Pentagon chief and plans for a permanent replacement.
It also signals an acrimonious end to a tense relationship between Trump and Mattis that had eroded in recent months. A fracture developed last week over Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and worsened after Mattis’ public disagreement with Trump, aired in his resignation letter.
Mattis made clear in the letter he did not see eye to eye with a president who has expressed disdain for NATO. That drew a critical tweet from Trump on Monday.
“We are substantially subsidizing the Militaries of many VERY rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the U.S., and our TAXPAYERS, on Trade,” Trump tweeted Monday. “General Mattis did not see this as a problem. I DO, and it is being fixed!”
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will take over as acting secretary on Jan. 1, Trump announced in a tweet Sunday. He had worked for more than three decades at Boeing Co. and was a senior vice president when he became Pentagon deputy in July 2017.
In the new year Trump wants to focus on streamlining purchases at the Pentagon, an issue on which Shanahan has already been working, a White House official said. The official asked not to be identified publicly discussing personnel matters.
U.S. officials said they didn’t know if Shanahan would be Trump’s nominee to replace Mattis. During a lunch with conservative lawmakers Saturday at the White House, Trump discussed his options. They were “not all military,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was among those attending.
Shanahan’s biography on the Pentagon’s website does not list military experience for the longtime Boeing executive. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington, then a master’s degree in mechanical engineering as well as an MBA from the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In addition to work in Boeing’s commercial airplanes programs, Shanahan was vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems and of Boeing Rotorcraft Systems. In a March 2016 report, the Puget Sound Business Journal called Shanahan a Boeing “fix-it” man who was central to getting the 787 Dreamliner on track after production problems in the program’s early years.
An acting defense secretary is highly unusual. Historically when a secretary has resigned, he has stayed on until a successor is confirmed. For example, when Chuck Hagel was told to resign in November 2014, he stayed in office until Ash Carter was confirmed the following February.
Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, had been expected to retain his position as Pentagon chief through February. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, not the president, notified Mattis of Trump’s decision to put in place Shanahan, said a senior administration official who insisted on anonymity to discuss personnel issues.
The sudden change stripped Mattis of any chance to further frame national security policy or smooth rattled relations with allies over the next two months. But U.S. officials said the reaction to Mattis’ decision to leave — it sparked shock and dismay on Capitol Hill — annoyed Trump and likely led to pushing Mattis out.