Shanahan Out as Pentagon Chief as Reports Emerge of Family Disputes

In a tweet, Trump named Mark Esper, the secretary of the Army, as the new acting secretary of defense.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks during his meeting with his Portuguese counterpart, João Gomes Cravinho, at the Pentagon in Washington on June 14.
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan speaks during his meeting with his Portuguese counterpart, João Gomes Cravinho, at the Pentagon in Washington on June 14. ERIC BARADAT/AFP/Getty Images

Patrick Shanahan withdrew his nomination to become the next secretary of defense, U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Twitter Tuesday, leaving the Pentagon without a permanent head for the foreseeable future.

The withdrawal of the former Boeing executive’s nomination came on the heels of multiple media reports Tuesday chronicling a history of domestic violence and assault in the Shanahan family. According to the Washington Post, Shanahan’s son William assaulted his mother, Kimberley, with a baseball bat in 2011. In 2010, police in Seattle arrested Kimberley after a violent confrontation between her and Shanahan, her then-husband, according to USA Today. They subsequently divorced.

The FBI has been investigating the domestic violence issues as part of its background investigation into the nominee, and that has delayed Shanahan’s nomination process. Shanahan was originally supposed to go before the Senate for his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. It is not clear why these issues did not come up during his confirmation process to be deputy secretary of defense in 2017.

In a statement on Tuesday, Shanahan said he decided to withdraw his name from consideration for the top Pentagon job because “my 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.”

“After having been confirmed for Deputy Secretary less than two years ago, it is 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 in the course of this process,” Shanahan said. “I would welcome the opportunity to be Secretary of Defense, but not at the expense of being a good father.”

Shanahan has served as acting defense secretary since his predecessor, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, resigned in December 2018. Shanahan’s nearly six months in office is the longest period in U.S. history in which the Pentagon has gone without a permanent chief.

The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, urged the president to fill the top post at the Pentagon “in a matter of weeks, not months.”

“The uncertainty surrounding this vacant office encourages our enemies and unsettles our allies,” he said in a statement.

But it does not look like the top Pentagon job will be filled anytime soon. Trump left Shanahan hanging for months before he announced his intent to name him to the permanent position; any new nominee will still have to be subjected to an extensive background check, noted Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha. Meanwhile, the Senate will break for recess in August. A new nominee will likely have to wait until the fall for confirmation, at the earliest, Callan said.

If Esper is the nominee, Callan speculated, he will likely be confirmed. But under the Vacancies Act, once nominated, Esper would have to step aside as acting until confirmed, noted Arnold Punaro, a former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Vacancies Act did not apply to Shanahan, as he was already the deputy secretary of defense.

The withdrawal of Shanahan’s nomination leaves the Pentagon without Senate-confirmed leadership at a time when the Defense Department is confronting a serious crisis. This week, the Pentagon announced it would deploy an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East amid escalating tensions with Iran after Trump administration officials accused Tehran of masterminding an attack on two oil tankers.

With Shanahan out, Army Secretary Mark Esper, a former Army infantry officer and lobbyist for the defense firm Raytheon, will take over as acting secretary of defense, Trump wrote on Twitter.

Esper’s elevation to the Pentagon’s top job is another coup for the U.S. defense industry, whose influence in the Defense Department has only grown under Shanahan, a former senior Boeing executive. Raytheon is best known for manufacturing precision-guided weapons, including the bombs sold by the United States to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and used in the war in Yemen.

“In Patrick Shanahan, President Trump had an acting secretary of defense whose decisions were overshadowed by his previous senior position at Boeing. His successor will likewise risk being tainted by his previous work for a major defense contractor,” said Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed an ethics complaint against Shanahan earlier this year.

As acting secretary of defense, Esper will likely have influence over contracts that could go to Raytheon, as well as the controversial proposed merger of Raytheon and UTC to become the second-largest defense company in the United States, after Lockheed Martin, said Bookbinder.

“His ethics agreement—and his ability to follow it—will be something we will be watching closely,” he said.

Ryan McCarthy, who was serving as the undersecretary of the Army, will be elevated to the secretary position.

Shanahan addressed the domestic violence incidents in interviews with the Washington Post. In 2011, Shanahan’s 17-year-old son violently attacked his then-wife with a baseball bat, according to the interview, as well as court filings and police records reviewed by the Post.

At the time, Shanahan argued his son was acting in self-defense after facing years of harassment from his mother, a move Shanahan said he regretted in hindsight, stressing he didn’t condone any violence. The year prior, his then-wife was arrested for punching him in the face in a separate incident. He later dropped the charges and filed for divorce.

“Bad things can happen to good families … and this is a tragedy, really,” Shanahan told the Post. He added that publicizing the incident “will ruin my son’s life.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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