This could either be smart move by Patrick Shanahan to ensure his confirmation … or a misstep that might scotch his formal nomination. After getting blindsided by the White House over a request to hide the USS John McCain during a review by Donald Trump, the acting Defense Secretary has made his displeasure known to the White House. Shanahan’s spokesman went on the record with the Washington Post to confirm that the acting SecDef told the White House to back the hell off:
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had a message for the White House: Politics and the military don’t mix.
Shanahan and Navy officials have faced intense scrutiny over a White House request to hide the USS John S. McCain warship during President Trump’s visit to Japan last month — a moment, among others, some defense officials and analysts have said is a sign of decay in the civilian-military relationship, which has been traditionally immune to partisan rancor.
Amid the backlash, Shanahan directed his chief of staff to tell the White House not to put the military in political situations, Shanahan’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino, told The Washington Post.
The part that didn’t go on the record was that it took the commander of the 7th Fleet to quash that request. That has Shanahan looking for new ways to insulate the military from electoral politics, the Associated Press reported earlier yesterday:
“How did the people receiving the information — how did they treat it,” Shanahan said. “That would give me an understanding on the next steps” to take.
Shanahan did not detail what those steps could be, but a defense official said Shanahan is considering a clearer directive to the military about avoiding political situations. The goal would be to ensure there is less ambiguity about how the military should support VIP events and how service members should respond to such political requests, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Why did Shanahan feel it necessary to have his spokesman get out in front of this? The simplest explanation might be that he’s ticked off about what happened, but there are also obvious political implications. He’s not yet been formally nominated to replace James Mattis, whose reaction to this kind of situation could be easily imagined. He knows that the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Democrats may already be gunning for him just for being Trump’s choice, and his ties to Boeing are already an issue. This public rebuke could earn Shanahan some points for independence ahead of his confirmation. It might not change the vote count much, but it could dial down some of the partisan fury that might otherwise have erupted over the USS McCain incident.
It’s possible, though, that Shanahan’s attempt to throw the White House under the bus might not go over so well with the administration. At the same time Shanahan was making his displeasure clear, Trump’s chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was telling Chuck Todd that it was no big deal:
Mulvaney: "The president's feelings towards the former senator are well known." pic.twitter.com/W4XD53lkbd
— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) June 3, 2019
Appearing on “Meet the Press” Sunday, Mulvaney said that “it was probably someone on the advance team” in the White House who was responsible, adding that the unidentified staffer who requested to hide the ship, named for the grandfather of the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, would not be fired.
“The fact that some 23, 24-year-old person on the advance team went to that site and said, ‘oh my goodness, here’s the John McCain, we all know how the president feels about the former senator, maybe that’s not the best backdrop, can somebody look into moving it?’ That’s not an unreasonable thing,” Mulvaney said.
“The president’s feeling towards the former senator are well known. They are well known throughout the office, they are well known in the media, but to think you’re gonna get fired over this is silly.”
It’s “not an unreasonable thing” to request a naval vessel move out of the president’s view because he doesn’t like the namesake’s son? Seriously? Of all the positions the White House could take, that’s, uh … one of them, I guess. It seems surpassingly strange that Mulvaney just doesn’t follow normal embarrassment-recovery mode by removing the Military Office staffer that created the problem. It’s hardly “silly” to deal with this by dispensing with the dispensable … unless that request came from higher up the food chain after all, from someone a lot less “dispensable.” If that’s the case, it would explain Mulvaney’s seemingly blasé attitude — and that might not bode well for Shanahan’s very public get-tough position.