Blumenthal weighs in on replacement for Mattis

December 30, 2018 GMT

President Donald Trump has indicated he does not intend to quickly name a replacement for outgoing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, but whoever Trump picks is likely to face tough questioning on Capitol Hill.

Mattis, who resigned from the job Dec. 20, was supposed to stay on for two more months but Trump announced last Sunday that he would be removing him from his post sooner than expected. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will take over as acting secretary of the department on Tuesday.

Mattis resigned after Trump’s decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. Trump also called for the removal of 7,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Though, the president, as of Friday, had not directed the Pentagon to begin that process.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said there needs to be a sense of urgency around picking the next defense secretary, given current military threats and a looming debate over the next defense budget.

“We need strong leadership right now, not two or three months from now, given the military threats around the world with the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan,” Blumenthal said.

The next budget is “on the drawing boards,” he said, and “there are a lot of critical, tactical and strategic decisions that need to be made.”

That includes key decisions involving undersea warfare, such as funding requests for a new fleet of 12 ballistic-missile submarines, primarily being built at Electric Boat, that are estimated to cost 700 billion as part of a larger effort to decrease federal spending, Trump reversed course and proposed a 100 billion above the cap set by the Budget Control Act. While lawmakers have voted to lift the caps in the past, an equal increase in nondefense spending would push the deficit above $1 trillion.

Those are some of the challenges that face Mattis’ replacement, who will have to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Blumenthal said Shanahan is “a strong possibility” to be the next defense secretary. He said it’s “hard to put odds” on the other names floating around, including Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Tom Cotton of Arkansas; former Army Vice Chief of Staff Jack Keane, who declined the job when offered it in 2016; retired Army Gen. David Petraeus; Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., was not available to be interviewed for this story.

Blumenthal said he has “a number of very serious concerns” with Shanahan getting the top job at the Pentagon. Shanahan is the least qualified of defense secretary nominees during his time in Congress, Blumenthal said, given he has no background or expertise in foreign policy or national security issues.

Before coming to the Pentagon, Shanahan worked for more than 30 years at Boeing, most recently as a senior vice president.

“My fear is that he would in a sense be captive of the culture and mindset of the corporate and contractor culture,” Blumenthal said, and that he would be a “yes man for Donald Trump.”

Blumenthal said he hopes whoever replaces Mattis shares his “clear knowledge and credibility” in national security policy, has demonstrated independence including “the backbone to stand up to President Trump,” and proven leadership skills. Just as important, he said, is that the next defense secretary shares Mattis’ understanding of the limits of military power, and the importance of diplomacy and alliances.