WASHINGTON — Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrew his already-troubled candidacy to lead the Pentagon full time on Tuesday after press accounts disclosed domestic violence incidents involving his ex-wife and son nearly a decade ago.
President Trump announced Shanahan’s abrupt withdrawal, tweeting that the former Boeing Co. executive wanted to “devote more time to his family.”
Army Secretary Mark Esper, a retired Army officer and former lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon, will take over as acting defense secretary, Trump said.
Shanahan’s departure adds to disarray in the top ranks of the Pentagon, which has not had a confirmed leader since James N. Mattis resigned in December after clashing with Trump over the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and Afghanistan.
— NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (@NBCNightlyNews) June 19, 2019
It also marks the latest turmoil in a White House that has seen unusual turnover of Cabinet officers and other senior staff, and a large number of top-level vacancies. Three major federal departments — Defense, Homeland Security and Interior — are run by acting secretaries.
Shanahan’s involvement in domestic violence incidents could have proved explosive at a Senate confirmation hearing, raising questions about whether he could lead a department that has struggled to quell domestic violence and other misconduct in the armed forces.
Trump told reporters Tuesday that he had not forced Shanahan to resign.
“I didn’t ask him to withdraw. He walked in this morning” to announce his plans, Trump said. He said he learned “yesterday for the first time” about the domestic violence problems. “It’s very unfortunate,” he added.
.@timkaine weighs in on acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan's departure: “We have not had a confirmed Secretary of Defense since the end of 2018. We’re living in a very challenging time right now.” pic.twitter.com/ZHN1roUATb
— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) June 18, 2019
In a statement, Shanahan, 56, said he had decided to withdraw after “significant reflection” and would also step down as deputy secretary, a position he could theoretically reclaim, and leave the Pentagon.
Shanahan called it “unfortunate that a painful and deeply personal family situation from long ago is being dredged up and painted in an incomplete and therefore misleading way.”
He added that “continuing in the confirmation process would force my three children to relive a traumatic chapter in our family’s life and reopen wounds we have worked years to heal. Ultimately, their safety and well-being is my highest priority.”
The FBI has been investigating a violent dispute in 2010 between Shanahan and his then-wife, Kimberley Jordinson, as part of its background investigation into his candidacy, which stalled after the White House announced in early May that Trump planned to nominate him for defense secretary.
In a separate incident in 2011, after the couple divorced, Shanahan’s son allegedly attacked his mother with a baseball bat, an incident that Shanahan later described in a private memo as an act of “self-defense,” The Washington Post reported.
Shanahan and his then-wife both alleged they were struck and injured by the other in a 2010 fight that led to her arrest, according to press accounts.
Both Shanahan and his ex-wife acknowledged in court filings and police reports that a late-night argument on Aug. 28, 2010, after both had been drinking, spilled from their bedroom to the front yard of their Seattle home, USA Today reported.
Shanahan denied hitting her, telling police she had punched him “10 to 20 times,” according to police records obtained by the newspaper. Officers arrested Jordinson on suspicion of domestic violence. Prosecutors later dropped the charge, citing a lack of evidence.
In November 2011, after the breakup of the marriage, their son, William Shanahan, then 17, fought with his mother and left her unconscious in a pool of blood, with a fractured skull and internal injuries that required surgery.
Two weeks later, according to the Post, Shanahan sent a memo to his ex-wife’s brother arguing that his son had acted in self-defense.
“Use of a baseball bat in self-defense will likely be viewed as an imbalance of force,” he said in the email. “However, Will’s mother harassed him for nearly three hours before the incident.”
Shanahan told the Post in an interview that he regretted the memo, which he said he wrote before he knew the full extent of his ex-wife’s injuries. He said there could be no justification for an assault with a baseball bat.
The White House never formally nominated Shanahan, who had not held public office before joining the Trump administration. He served as deputy secretary of defense for two years before he was named acting secretary in January.
— Kelly O'Donnell (@KellyO) June 18, 2019
Numerous top appointed Defense Department positions, including the deputy and senior civilian policy jobs, are held by acting officials or are unoccupied at a time when U.S. forces are engaged in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The Pentagon also has rushed several thousand troops, an aircraft carrier task force, strategic bombers and other major military resources to the Middle East in recent weeks to project power and protect U.S. facilities and allies amid rising tensions with Iran.
Even Republicans in Congress have warned Trump, who once said he prefers acting Cabinet secretaries, to nominate someone whom the Senate can quickly confirm to halt the leadership vacuum at the Pentagon.
“For the sake of our national security, we need a confirmed secretary of defense — not just an acting — and I hope we can get to that point as quickly as possible,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., who would preside over a confirmation hearing as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Inhofe praised Esper, saying he has “a long history of dedicated service to this nation, and he has shown excellent judgment in his current position, which I expect will continue as he assumes the role of acting secretary of defense.”
Esper, a former infantry officer who served in the 1991 Gulf War, was chief of staff at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, from 1996 to 1998.
He spent several years on Capitol Hill, including work for former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who served as secretary of defense under President Barack Obama. Esper became the top lobbyist for Raytheon starting in 2010.
Though he has more Washington experience than Shanahan, Esper is a former defense lobbyist taking charge of the Pentagon under Trump. His selection opens up another senior civilian job at the Pentagon — Army secretary — that Trump will have to fill.
Even before his withdrawal, Shanahan appeared to be losing Trump’s confidence and support in Congress after uneven performances on Capitol Hill and at a regional gathering of defense ministers in Singapore.
Some lawmakers were infuriated after U.S. Navy personnel, after a request from the White House, took steps to conceal a U.S. destroyer named for John McCain during Trump’s visit to a naval base in Japan last month. Trump and McCain had quarreled during and after the 2016 campaign, but the late GOP senator from Arizona remained widely respected in Congress.
Shanahan said he had no role in the incident.
At events marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France, this month, Trump reportedly sounded out several associates about other candidates.
Shanahan had extensive experience in the defense industry but little in government.
In his brief tenure as acting secretary, he focused on implementing the national defense strategy that was developed during Mattis’ tenure. It emphasizes a shift from the resources and tactics required to fight small wars against extremist groups, the focus of the post-9/11 period, to what Shanahan calls “great power” competition with China and Russia.
Shanahan is the latest in a series of Trump appointees and senior staff whose withdrawals revealed inadequate background vetting by the White House.
Last month, Stephen Moore, a conservative commentator and economist nominated to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, withdrew after his past writings and statements disparaging women and gender equity sparked a backlash.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert withdrew from consideration as ambassador to the United Nations in February after the White House learned she had employed an immigrant nanny who didn’t have authorization to work.
The White House staff secretary, Rob Porter, resigned in 2018 as a result of allegations of abuse from his two ex-wives. Porter denied the allegations.
Asked Tuesday about the White House vetting, Trump said: “We have a very good vetting process.”