Dems to Test Shanahan’s “Backbone” During Confirmation Hearing

Senators plan to probe whether the Defense secretary nominee will stand up to the president, especially on border policy.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan goes before the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss the department budget on March 14.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
May 14, 2019, 8 p.m.

Democrats concerned about the military’s expanding mission at the southern border plan to hold Patrick Shanahan’s feet to the fire during his confirmation hearing.

The acting Defense secretary will soon head to the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Democrats want to see if he will capitulate to the president on border security. Although Shanahan’s long-awaited nomination to fill the job permanently is unlikely to get derailed in the GOP-controlled upper chamber, he could lose substantial support from senators skeptical of his ability to withstand White House pressure.

“He was in as the 'acting' before, so the questions will be quite different: what the leadership style is, what his highest priorities are going to be … and will he speak truth to power,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, who sits on the Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Tim Kaine said lawmakers were looking to see if Shanahan has “backbone” like his predecessor, James Mattis, who resigned after failing to convince Trump not to pull troops from Syria.

“Acceding to a request that you cannibalize the Pentagon’s budget for what the military acknowledges is a non-military emergency—once you go down that path, that has real danger,” Kaine said.

Shanahan’s marshaling of Pentagon funds to support border-wall construction has upset Democrats off the committee as well, including many 2020 contenders. Democrats have sent repeated inquiries to Shanahan regarding his siphoning of previously appropriated department funds.

On Friday, the Pentagon notified lawmakers of plans to spend $1.5 billion on roughly 78 miles of fencing along the southern border. A large chunk of the funds, $604 million, was appropriated to support Afghan security forces, the Associated Press reported last week. The Pentagon also dipped into funds meant for Air Force weapons acquisition, missile defense, the destruction of chemical munitions, and the military's retirement system, according to Inside Defense.

Democratic appropriators castigated Shanahan over the decision, accusing him in a letter of ignoring “decades of precedent and cooperation” with Congress, and noting that the move occurred mere hours after Trump announced his intent to nominate Shanahan.

“This whole thing has been a black box, and it doesn’t augur well for … civilian oversight,” Sen. Brian Schatz told National Journal. “We were kept in the dark until Friday, and they did a news dump. … It’s not just that the Department of Defense seems to be willing to let itself get politicized. It’s also that they’re not telling us what’s happening.”

The Pentagon has already awarded roughly $1 billion for border-wall construction, pulling the money from military personnel accounts. Shanahan determined that those projects would support “counterdrug activities or activities to counter transnational organized crime,” which was required to reprogram the funds. The decision is separate from the Pentagon’s plan to shift roughly $3.6 billion in “unobligated” military construction funds toward Trump’s wall, a move that drew backlash from members keen on protecting projects in their home states.

Shanahan will also likely face tough questions from Democrats about the military’s expanding role at the border.

In late April, Shanahan issued waivers allowing military personnel to transport migrants, distribute meals, and represent the Homeland Security Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in immigration court. Last week, 17 Democrats voiced alarm over the policy, demanding in a letter that Shanahan provide the legal justification for any mission that could put military personnel in contact with migrants. Those deployments, critics have alleged, could violate the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the military from conducting law enforcement operations.

Defense officials had publicly stated that troops deployed to the southern border—currently around 4,600—would merely support DHS officials by stringing razor wire, flying aerial support missions, and building medical stations. During a visit to McAllen, Texas, over the weekend, Shanahan said the troops would not leave “until the border is secure.”

Defense secretary nominations typically sail through the confirmation process with only token opposition. Mattis was confirmed 98 to 1, and his predecessor, Ash Carter, was confirmed by a vote of 93 to 5. The last nominee to face considerable opposition was President Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel, who was confirmed by the Senate 58 to 41 after weathering Republican attacks over his views on Israel.

“That’s to be avoided if it can be,” said Kaine of the party-line vote. “[But] again, we’ve got to ask hard questions.”

Shanahan, who can afford to lose only four votes from the president’s party if Democrats oppose him en bloc, is already wrapping up Armed Services members’ support. Chairman James Inhofe and Sens. Josh Hawley and Thom Tillis told National Journal they’ll support his confirmation.

But Republicans will have their own parochial questions for the nominee before they vote to advance. Sen. Kevin Cramer said he wants to hear Shanahan’s long-term planning for national priorities and installations in his home state of North Dakota before pledging his vote to confirm. Sen. Roger Wicker, in a statement praising Shanahan as “capable,” said he will be “working with him to advance the interests of Mississippi’s military installations, suppliers, and industrial base.”

Sen. Joni Ernst, a member of leadership, said Tuesday her past concerns about Shanahan’s potential conflict of interest with Boeing, his former employer, were mollified by an inspector general’s report that cleared him of ethics referrals alleging that he had disparaged Lockheed Martin’s management of the F-35 fighter-jet contract.

Ernst said she plans to press Shanahan to make military sexual assault and harassment prevention "a top-line issue." It's a topic that Sen. Martha McSally, like Ernst a survivor of sexual assault who sits on Armed Services, discussed with Shanahan and other top brass last week at the Pentagon.

“I’ve been talking to these guys on the phone nonstop and meeting with them several times,” McSally said last week. “I appreciate their timely effort after I asked them to create this task force to seriously address … how we can improve the investigation and judicial process.”

But McSally on Monday declined to say what she needs to get to yes on a committee vote.

“We have a process we go through. I don’t normally do that out loud,” McSally said, laughing. “I know you meet a lot of other people who do these things out loud. It’s just not my style.”

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