29 January 2019

Responding to criticism that he had yet to meet with the press since his appointment as acting Secretary of Defense on 1 January, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan made himself briefly available to media today in the Pentagon’s briefing room. (Oddly, video and audio recordings were not permitted for the on-the-record session, where making news seemed to be the last thing Mr. Shananan wanted to do.)

Secretary Shanahan, seated alone behind a table, spoke for about five minutes and then took questions from the standing-room-only crowd for the balance of the not-a-minute-than-30-minute session.

The transcript is available here, but following are a few things that we learned Tuesday from Mr. Shanahan’s ever-so-careful responses to media query:

(1) The U.S. military is in the “early stages” of a withdrawal from Syria that is “deliberate, coordinated, and disciplined.” Shanahan said that ISIS is largely vanquished in the country and will lose its final bits of territory in Syria to U.S.-backed forces within a couple of weeks. “I’d say 99.5 percent plus of the ISIS-controlled territory has been returned to the Syrians. Within a couple of weeks, it’ll be 100 percent.”

(2) The F-35 fighter program remains in his crosshairs. When asked if he, characterized by some as biased in favor of Boeing (his former company) and against Lockheed Martin and its F-35 fighter, he said: “I’m biased towards performance. I am biased toward giving taxpayers their money’s worth. The F-35 unequivocally, I can say, has a lot of opportunity for more performance.”

(3) He gave up nothing about the possible/pending deployment of [5,000] U.S. troops to Colombia to stabilize Venezuela. The acting Secretary said — repeatedly — that he had not discussed the deployment issue with U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, but would not respond to shouted clarification questions of whether he had discussed such a deployment with others. Asked if he was ruling out troop deployments to Colombia, Shanahan said: “I’m not commenting on it.”

(4) He underscored the long-held notion that that the Department of Defense should be non-political. As to whether he is prepared to speak to President Trump about making partisan comments in front of military audiences as he did recently, Shanahan responded, twice: “I am always prepared to give the President feedback.”

(5) He said that if President Trump declared a national emergency on the border with Mexico it would not be neither unique nor unprecedented. He said that “thousands” of U.S. troops could be involved in supporting the emergency and he expressed his certainty that the Department of Defense — via U.S. Code Title 10, Section 2808 — has the authority to spend Military Construction funds on efforts to support military objectives, including, prospectively, wall construction.

(6) He is encouraged by ongoing negotiations with the Taliban but urged patience. Said Shanahan: “The coalition forces there and the Afghan National Security Forces have been doing a tremendous job. I would say there is no change to the Four R+S plan: Realign, Reinforce, Regionalize, Reconcile and Sustain. The reconciliation portion of our 4R+S is working now. Now we need to give the diplomats time and space to advance those conversations.”

(7) He said has chosen — but won’t yet identify — the person who he wants to lead the nascent U.S. Space Command, and says that work is underway on the confirmation process. 

(8) His mother sends him a prayer emoji each morning and — like the media and Pentagon watchers — she would like to see him do televised press conferences.