When Patrick M.  Shanahan, the president’s nominee for deputy secretary of defense, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his nomination hearing Tuesday, it was not, in the words of the committee chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), “a good beginning.”

McCain was unimpressed with Shanahan’s written answers to the committee’s questions on arming the Ukraine military to defend itself better against Russian aggression. McCain has long been an advocate for lethal military aid to Ukraine, which is fighting Russian-backed separatists in its eastern provinces. He threatened to hold up Shanahan’s  nomination over the issue.

Shanahan has worked at Boeing since 1986, including stints running the rotary aircraft and missile defense systems business units. He has no government experience, but his MBA from the Sloan School of Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and executive experience make him well-suited to be the DoD’s chief management officer, which, by law, is one of the deputy secretary’s primary responsibilities.

This lack of government experience no doubt has Shanahan treading cautiously, but McCain wasn’t having it.

Like almost every nominee, Shanahan’s answers to the committee’s written questions were as non-committal as possible. Responding to the question on military aid to Ukraine, Shanahan wrote:

The provision of lethal defensive equipment as part of our already robust security assistance program is an option I plan to look at closely if I am confirmed. I do not have access to classified assessments of the performance of the Ukrainian and Russian militaries in the course of the conflict, and particularly the impact of the security assistance we have provided thus far. I plan to examine this issue closely.

This is a typical Washington non-answer. But McCain called this response “not satisfactory,” pressing Shanahan to “abridge or defend” his statement and commit to lethal aid.

This is, ultimately, unfair.


Assuming McCain actually believes Shanahan’s written answers actually reflect his own personal views, he would have been the only person in the room who thought so. No administration allows a nominee to give their own personal views in testimony; they give the administration’s position.

The answers to the committee’s advance questions, as is the case in all nominations hearings, were drafted by staffers throughout the Pentagon, often in coordination with other departments, and approved by the White House. Some nominees, such as with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, are well-versed in the topic, studied the briefing books hard, or both. Other nominees seem to have left the prep materials in a cab and gone out on their own, with disastrous results, as was the case with Education Secretary Betsy Devos.

Shanahan was not staying up late, trying to craft the answers to these queries like he was working on the essay for his college application. He was handed several large binders of materials that included the answers the administration expected him to provide.


McCain’s anger was misdirected. The quality of Shanahan’s answer on the question of aid to Ukraine reflects on administration, not him. Foreign military sales are coordinated through the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, but it is the secretary of state (and ultimately, the president) who decides which countries will be allowed to purchase military hardware. The deputy secretary of defense just isn’t the decision maker in these matters.

McCain had the opportunity to press the administration for more answers on Ukraine aid during the confirmation hearing for Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Robert S. Karem, who develops security cooperation policy.

Shanahan’s deep management experience, built over three decades at one of the country’s largest defense contractors—and the country’s self-proclaimed “largest manufacturing exporter”—is a far more salient topic. The DoD is the nation’s largest enterprise, comprising more than 1.3 million active duty service members, 742,000 civilians, and countless (almost literally) contractors. The main focus of the deputy secretary is to make sure the department has the business processes necessary to sustain that enterprise.

Shanahan may not be read-in to the latest Ukraine policy, but he appears to be well equipped to manage the department.

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin