President Donald Trump criticized former defense secretary Jim Mattis’ performance on Wednesday, as acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan stepped into his new job and the U.S. military sought to make sense of the president’s murky plans for the war in Syria.
Trump questioned how well Mattis had served as Pentagon chief, and pointed out that the retired Marine general had been removed early by the Obama administration from his last position as chief of U.S. Central Command over policy disagreements.
“What’s he done for me? How had he done in Afghanistan? Not too good,” Trump said. “As you know President Obama fired him, and essentially so did I.”
Trump’s comments came as the Pentagon attempted to show stability in the wake of Mattis’ departure, who is beloved by many in Trump’s political base. Mattis resigned Dec. 20 citing policy disagreements with the president, but had said he would stay on through the end of February. Days later, Trump forced him out.
The defense secretary resigned Dec. 20 while citing policy disagreements with the president, and was forced out by Trump before the end of the year rather than staying through the end of February, as Mattis had planned.
Shanahan said Wednesday in a statement that he has tapped David Norquist, an undersecretary of defense who serves as comptroller, to perform the duties of the deputy defense secretary while Shanahan moves up from that position to serve as acting defense secretary. Norquist has served since June 2017 as the Defense Department’s chief financial officer, and has “insight into virtually every tenet of this department,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan took over for Mattis on New Year’s Day after Trump removed Mattis from his position in an abrupt Dec. 23 decision. Mattis had submitted his resignation letter to Trump three days earlier citing disagreements over policy decisions three days earlier, but planned to stay as Pentagon chief through the end of February to provide continuity during transition to a new leader.
A U.S. official said Shanahan has met with senior civilian and military officials at the Pentagon and instructed them to continue their focus on the priorities identified in the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, particularly competition with China. He was expected to speak with congressional leaders and officials from allied countries later in the day.
The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the transition, said Shanahan’s tenure as deputy Pentagon chief had prepared him for his new role and enabled him to “hit the ground running.”
With Mattis gone, another planned move – bringing in Marine Maj. Gen. Burke Whitman to serve as a new senior spokesman – will not happen. Whitman was expected to brief the media in 2019 alongside chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White, who abruptly resigned on New Year’s Eve as Mattis left the Pentagon. White is under investigation by the Defense Department inspector general amid accusations that she had subordinate staff members carry out menial tasks for her in violation of Pentagon rules.
The changes came as the Pentagon grapples with Trump’s desire to withdrawal all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and cut down the 14,000 that are in Afghanistan. Trump issued withdrawal orders for Syria on Dec. 19, and also directed the Pentagon to draw up plans to roughly reduce the number of service members in Afghanistan by half, U.S. officials have said.
Trump initially wanted all of the U.S. troops out of Syria within 30 days, triggering Mattis’ resignation and concerns from Republicans and Democrats that the decision would create new chaos in the region. The president, in a video posted on his Twitter account Dec. 19, said that U.S. troops were “all coming back” from Syria, “and they’re coming back now.”
The president has since softened on that approach, saying in a tweet Monday that U.S. officials are “slowly sending our troops back home to be with their families,” while service members who remain deployed in Syria continue to fight remnants of the Islamic State.
Trump has agreed to give the military about four months to completely depart from Syria, according to three U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy discussions. That development was first first reported by the New York Times.
But U.S. officials suggested Wednesday that the plan remains unclear. While Trump agreed to a 120-day timeline, military officials have cautioned that an additional month or two would allow for a smoother transition and hope to persuade the president to allow for a longer delay, the officials said.
Officials at the State Department, meanwhile, have struggled to explain the U.S. strategy in Syria to key foreign partners invested in the conflict, given the possibility that Trump’s advisers might persuade him to back off his initial withdrawal plan.
Trump has expressed exasperation at the criticism he has received for his plans to withdraw from the conflicts, which he says are costly and unpopular.
“I am the only person in America who could say that, ‘I’m bringing our great troops back home, with victory,’ and get BAD press,” Trump tweeted Monday.
Pentagon officials, who rarely discuss troop movements before they occur, have declined to say how long a withdrawal will take.
“We are focused on a deliberate and controlled withdrawal of forces, taking all measures possible to ensure our troops’ safety as they continue in their mission of an enduring defeat of ISIS,” said Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman. “Out of concern for operational security, we are not going to discuss operational details.”
In the Pentagon’s history, there have been two previous acting defense secretaries: William P. Clements Jr. and William Howard Taft IV. Clements held the post for 39 days in 1973 after President Nixon appointed Defense Secretary Elliot Richardson as attorney general, and Taft led the Pentagon for 60 days as the Senate rejected President George H.W. Bush’s first Pentagon chief nominee, John Tower, amid allegations of womanizing and alcohol abuse.
Trump said in a visit to Iraq last month that “everybody and his uncle” and “everybody and his aunt” has interest in becoming defense secretary, but added that Shanahan “could be there for a long time.” The president did not say whether he meant in an acting capacity, or if he would nominate Shanahan for the permanent post.
While serving as acting Pentagon chief, Shanahan will have the full authorities the job includes, said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine major general who helped write the Goldwater-Nichols Act that guides civilian control of the military. However, the framers of the law did not anticipate that someone would serve as acting defense secretary indefinitely without Senate confirmation to the higher post, he said.
Punaro called Norquist a good choice to take on deputy defense secretary duties, and said the decision was complicated by the departure in November of Chief Management Officer John “Jay” Gibson, who held the No. 3 position in the Pentagon. The duties of the chief management officer have been carried out since by Deputy Chief Management Officer Lisa Hershman, who has not gone through a Senate confirmation process.
Carter Ham, a retired Army general, described Shanahan as very capable but said he believes Trump should select a permanent defense secretary soon for the sake of continuity.
“I think the team that is in place is a solid team. The question I have is: How long does this persist?” said Ham, who is now the president and chief executive officer of the Association of the United States Army. “For lack of a better term, will the people who were on the Mattis team stay? If they don’t stay, I think it would be a little bit unusual for an acting secretary to build a team because the presumption is that the acting person is usually not the person who stays.”