Carol E. Lee, Courtney Kube, Leigh Ann Caldwell, Kristen Welker and Carrie Dann
Jun 11th 2019 9:20PM
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump appears to be having second thoughts about his choice of Patrick Shanahan as his next secretary of defense and asked several confidants last week in Normandy about alternative candidates, according to four people familiar with the conversations.
While in Normandy last week to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Trump asked at least three people what they thought of Shanahan and if they had any suggestions for different candidates, the four people familiar with the conversations said.
They said Army Secretary Mark Esper was discussed as a possible replacement nominee should Trump decide to pull back his Shanahan announcement. Esper was among the candidates that Trump had previously considered for the defense secretary job.
Asked by NBC News Tuesday about Shanahan's nomination, Trump said he "put it out officially" weeks ago and now the acting secretary "has to go through the process."
A spokesperson for Shanahan declined to comment.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks to members of the news media after a classified briefing for members of Congress on Iran, Tuesday, May 21, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, left, speaks with troops near McAllen, Texas, about the military’s role in support of the Department of Homeland Security’s effort to secure the Southwest border. At right is Kevin McAleenan, acting DHS secretary. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan listens, Wednesday May 1, 2019, during a House Appropriations subcommittee on budget hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
El secretario de Defensa interino Patrick Shanahan habla con la prensa en el Pentágono, Washington, 19 de abril de 2019. (AP Foto/Patrick Semansky)
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens on Friday, April 19, 2019, at the Department of State in Washington. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan appears before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington , Thursday, April 11, 2019, on the proposed Space Force. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump, second from right, flanked by acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, second from left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, right, speaks during a meeting with military leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 3, 2019. At left is Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, left, talks with International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Director-General and Chief Executive John Chipman ahead of the first plenary session of the 18th IISS Shangri-la Dialogue, an annual defense and security forum in Asia, in Singapore, Saturday, June 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Yong Teck Lim)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, shakes hands with U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan prior to their meeting in Tokyo, Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, Pool)
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White House officials told allies last month that Shanahan's formal nomination would be sent to Congress on May 18. Shanahan's team at the Pentagon expected it late last week, according to two defense officials.
The people familiar with the president's conversations about Shanahan last week said he didn't articulate what is giving him pause about his decision. But, they said, he made it clear he's wondering if there's another option.
"He has no champion," one person close to Trump said of Shanahan. "No one is fighting for him."
One U.S. official said the FBI process for updating Shanahan's security clearance is not yet complete. Shanahan has had a security clearance as acting secretary and deputy defense secretary prior to that. The FBI's current review is an update of his existing clearance, officials said.
Trump's private solicitation of opinions about alternatives for Shanahan doesn't mean he will ultimately choose a different nominee. The president often asks aides and confidants for their thoughts on a staffer he's second-guessing at the moment without that individual being immediately forced out.
But a time lag between an announcement that Trump intends to nominate someone for a job and a formal nomination has sometimes meant the end for a would-be nominee. Trump publicly announced he'd recommended former 2016 presidential rival Herman Cain to serve on the Federal Reserve Board but later backtracked after questions about Cain's qualifications for the job.
Herman Cain through the years
Herman Cain through the years
Herman Cain, president of the National Restaurant Association poses during an interview in Chicago Wednesday, May 13, 1998. (AP Photo/Michael S. Green)
SLUG:NA/GEORGIA DATE: 7/16/2004 CREDIT:Manuel Roig-Franzia LOCATION: Valdosta, GA CAPTION:Herman Cain shaking hands with an elderly supporter in Valdosta, Ga. Cain, a former pizza chain owner, is running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate by touting a host of conservative themes, including strict abortion limits and abolishing the INternal Revenue Service. ORG XMIT: DIGITAL FILE / E-MAIL
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 09: Herman Cain (Photo By Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty Images)
FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2011 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain walks across the stage after speaking in Ames, Iowa. Iowa's presidential caucuses are any Republican candidate's to win. Just two months before the GOP nomination voting begins, Iowa Republicans aren't surging toward former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney even though he's essentially been running for president since losing here in 2008. And, this time, none of his opponents has emerged as the consensus candidate of conservatives _ and, thus, Romney's chief challenger _ the way Mike Huckabee did four years ago. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
CNBC EVENTS -- Your Money, Your Vote: The Republican Presidential Debate -- Pictured: Herman Cain at CNBC's 'Your Money, Your Vote: The Republican Presidential Debate' live from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, Wednesday, November 9th at 8PM ET (Photo by Rick Osentoski/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 4120 -- Pictured: (l-r) Presidential candidate Herman Cain during an interview with host Jay Leno on September 30, 2011 -- Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank
Herman Cain gestures as he speaks to a Republican fundraiser in Oklahoma City, Monday, Dec. 5, 2011. Cain promised to continue fighting for several of his initiatives "from the outside." (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Gloria Cain, left, blows a kiss to the crowd as she arrives with her husband, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, right, at an event Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011, in Atlanta. Cain announced he is suspending his campaign for president. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
DECEMBER 3, 2011-Atlanta, Georgia- Presidential hopeful Herman Cain bows out in front of his Georgia Headquarters in Atlanta, GA on Saturday, December 3,2011. Chris Rank/ Photographer. Cain is starting a new website aimed at promoting his ideals and economic policies called thecainsolution.com (Photo by Chris Rank/Corbis via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 22: Questions focuseWASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 22: Mitt Romney greets Businessman Herman Cain at the start of thethe Republican Presidential Debate at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, November 22, 2011. The debate is being sponsored by CNN, Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Republican presidential hopefuls L-R: Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Gov. Rick Perry; former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and businessman Herman Cain listen to the American National Anthem prior to the start of the Republican presidential debate on national security November 22, 2011 at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Constitution Hall in Washington, DC. The debate is hosted by CNN in partnership with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Entrepreneur Herman Cain attends the first 2012 Republican presidential candidates' debate in Manchester, New Hampshire June 13, 2011. AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - AUGUST 11: Businessman Herman Cain is interviewed by Sean Hannity of Fox News in the Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State University after the Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa. The debate featured eight republican candidates including Cain. (Photo By Tom Williams/Roll Call)
Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks during the Unity Rally 2012 at The River Church in Tampa, Florida, U.S., on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012. Delegates of the Republican National Convention (RNC) will convene on Aug. 27 as scheduled and then recess until Aug. 28 due to the expected arrival of Tropical Storm Isaac, said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
RENO, NV - JULY 23: Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain speaks during an American For Prosperity rally on July 23, 2012 in Reno, Nevada. Hundreds of people attended an Americans For Prosperity rally to see former Republican presidential candidate speak. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 12: Herman Cain attends The Boortz Happy Ending at The Fox Theater on January 12, 2013 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for WSB Radio)
HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 22: Patriot Award Recipient/Former Presidental canidate Herman Cain attends the 2015 Helping A Hero Gala on November 22, 2015 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Helping A Hero)
MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 06: Herman Cain attends the North American premiere of 'A Billion Lives' at Pabst Theater on August 6, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for A Billion Lives)
Radio Journalist honoree: Herman Cain, host of The Herman Cain Show, speaks at the Third Annual Multicultural Media Correspondents Dinner at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, May 24, 2018. (Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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Other times, the White House has submitted a formal nomination to the Senate, and Trump has later withdrawn the pick, such as in April when he reversed course on Ron Vitiello as head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement because he wanted to go in a "tougher direction."
Six Trump picks are awaiting formal nomination, according to the Partnership for Public Service's Political Appointee Tracker. The list includes Shanahan, Barbara Barrett as secretary of the Air Force, and Mark Morgan as the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Shanahan was on Capitol Hill on Tuesday meeting with some of the senators on the Armed Services Committee, including Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
Shanahan was not Trump's first choice for the nomination, administration and congressional officials have said. Among Trump's concerns was that Shanahan lacks the strong presence in person and on television that he believes a defense secretary should convey, according to people who have discussed the matter with the president. Trump vacillated for months on whether to pick Shanahan, officials said.
They said he settled on Shanahan after several of Trump's allies in Congress and outside the White House urged him to permanently fill the role because an acting secretary is not seen as having the full confidence of the president.
The May 9 announcement of Shanahan's pending nomination came from White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Twitter. "Based upon his outstanding service to the Country and his demonstrated ability, President Trump intends to nominate Patrick M. Shanahan to be the Secretary of Defense," Sanders wrote. "Acting Secretary Shanahan has proven over the last several months that he is beyond qualified to lead the Department of Defense, and he will continue to do an excellent job."
While Shanahan has struggled to gain allies in Congress or completely win over the president, he has enjoyed the support of at least one senior White House official, National Security Adviser John Bolton. Bolton has backed Shanahan in part, officials said, because he views him as someone who will go along with whatever Trump wants. Bolton clashed with former Defense Secretary James Mattis over a host of issues and welcomed his departure from the administration.
"Bolton is the big winner if Shanahan gets it," said the person close to Trump.
A spokesperson for Bolton said he still supports Shanahan.
A former senior administration official who remains close to the White House said one of the reasons for the delay in Shanahan's nomination is it's been tougher than expected to detangle Shanahan from his time as an executive at Boeing and his other previous business relationships.
Shanahan's defense of the Pentagon's contracting process for a $10 billion federal contract to build its Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, program, could also be raising questions both on Capitol Hill and with the president, the official said.
Members of Congress have raised concerns about the contract, which critics say has been tailor-made for only one company — Amazon, a company Trump has routinely criticized. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who is the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is waiting for answers from the Defense Department on the contracting program. "The JEDI thing is definitely on people's minds," said a former administration official.
In the nearly five weeks since Trump announced Shanahan as his choice, some daylight has emerged publicly between the two men.
Shanahan differed from the president in his assertion that North Korea's recent short-range ballistic missile tests violate United Nations resolutions. "These were short-range missiles, and those are a violation," Shanahan recently told reporters.
Two days earlier at a news conference in Japan, Trump said the tests were not a violation. "My people think it could have been a violation," Trump said. "I view it differently."
Around the same time, Shanahan also announced that his staff would investigate a White House request that the Navy keep the USS John McCain out of the president's sight during his visit to Japan. "I would never dishonor the memory of a great American patriot like Senator McCain," Shanahan said.
Trump, however, called the request "well-meaning" and made clear, as he has many times, how he feels about the late Arizona Sen. John McCain. "I was not a big fan of John McCain in any way, shape or form," Trump said.
Shanahan, who has no military experience, later announced he would not order an inspector general's investigation into the matter.
Shanahan served as former Secretary Mattis' deputy until Mattis resigned at the end of December over a string of policy differences with Trump. At the time, Trump hailed Shanahan's elevation to acting secretary, calling him "very talented."
"Patrick has a long list of accomplishments while serving as Deputy, & previously Boeing," Trump wrote on Twitter. "He will be great!"