WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he was replacing acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan after he came under scrutiny for a violent fight with his wife nine years ago.
The announcement injects uncertainty into the highest echelon of the national security system at a time of escalating tensions with Iran that have left the Pentagon preparing for a possible military confrontation. The Trump administration ordered another 1,000 U.S. troops deployed to the region on Monday after attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman for which it blames Iran.
Shanahan had been Trump’s choice to be his new defense secretary. In the tweet, Trump said Shanahan was leaving to spend more time with his family, and that he would name Army Secretary Mark Esper as his new acting defense secretary.
Shanahan, 56, has been the acting defense secretary since January, the longest period the Pentagon has been led by a temporary chief.
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The move came about an hour after USA TODAY published a story revealing that the FBI had been investigating a violent 2010 fight between Shanahan and his then-wife ahead of Shanahan’s potential confirmation hearing.
Two officials familiar with the matter said that Trump was prepared to back his nominee, but Shanahan told the president he was pulling out in an Oval Office meeting that took place shortly after the USA TODAY story was published.
“The acting secretary met with the president and told him he didn’t want to be a distraction to the Defense Department,” one of the officials said. “He didn’t want to be a distraction to the administration or to the president.”
Mark Esper testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of the U.S. Army in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill November 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Nominated by President Donald Trump, Esper is an Army veteran and currently serves as vice president of government relations for the giant defense contractor Raytheon. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)
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The meeting took place just before Trump announced Shanahan’s departure. Neither the White House nor the Pentagon has said when Shanahan plans to leave his job, though Shanahan said in a statement that he would “coordinate an appropriate transition.”
The Pentagon has been without a permanent leader since January, complicating the administration’s efforts to build support among foreign and U.S. leaders as it deals with Iran and other security issues. Shanahan, 56, already is the longest serving acting defense chief in modern history, and his withdrawal means it will likely take the administration longer to fill the job.
The officials said that it is likely that Esper, a West Point graduate, will be nominated to the post.
Shanahan’s background: FBI examining 2010 domestic fight involving Shanahan; accounts differ on aggressor
In a statement, Shanahan described his time at the Pentagon as “a deep honor and privilege to serve our country alongside the men and women of the Department of Defense.”
“I am proud of the work accomplished over the last two years,” he said, adding that the department had made “significant progress rebuilding and modernizing the military to compete with China and Russia.”
But “I believe 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. I would welcome the opportunity to be Secretary of Defense, but not at the expense of being a good father.”
Both Shanahan and his former wife, who now goes by the name Kimberley Jordinson, acknowledged in court filings and police reports that a late-night argument spilled from their bedroom to the front yard of their home in an affluent Seattle neighborhood and escalated into a clash that police said left him with a bloodied-nose and hand and her with blood stains – possibly from offensive moves – on her forearm.
But their accounts diverge sharply on who was to blame, as well as the claim Jordinson reported to officers that night and later outlined in divorce papers: that Shanahan punched her in the stomach. Shanahan, in a statement to USA TODAY, denied that he had ever struck his wife.
Trump said in April that he planned to make Shanahan his permanent defense chief, putting him in command of the military’s 2 million active and reserve troops and 700,000 civilians at a time when the service at a time when it was struggling to confront longstanding problems with violence against women. The White House had not formally submitted his nomination to the Senate.
Trump selected Shanahan as the Pentagon’s second-in-command in 2017, his first government posting after a career as an engineer and top executive at Boeing, a major defense contractor. The decision put Shanahan in one of the government’s top national security positions, though one where his personal life remained mostly unexamined. Trump elevated Shanahan to be acting defense secretary after Jim Mattis resigned in December in protest of Trump’s treatment of allies and abrupt decisions to withdraw U.S. forces from the Middle East.
Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan arrives at the Pentagon for the first time in his official capacity, on Jan. 2, 2019 in Arlington, Va. (Photo: Mark Wilson, Getty Images)
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee had known that Shanahan had been involved in a contentious divorce when he was confirmed as deputy defense secretary but was unaware of the extent of domestic violence, his spokesman, Chip Unruh, said. He said the incident could have been overlooked in an earlier background check, or might have surfaced now because he was in line for the more sensitive post.
Two FBI agents questioned Jordinson in early June about the 2010 incident and another alleged physical encounter between the two in 2002 as part of a background examination of the presumptive nominee, she said.
The FBI declined to comment. A Senate staffer with knowledge of the matter said the bureau’s inquiry into Shananan’s background was ongoing as part of the vetting process.
Jordinson has maintained that Shanahan struck her as the two struggled over a briefcase, an allegation she repeated to Seattle police, in a later divorce filing and in a recent interview with USA TODAY.
“My husband is throwing punches at me,” Jordinson told a Seattle 911 operator that night, according to a recording of the call. “He’s been hitting me. … I don’t need a medic, I need you guys to get him out of the house. … He’s just swinging punches at me.”
One of the couple’s sons, who witnessed part of the argument, later submitted a statement, recounting a physical struggle and his mother’s call for help, though the son said he did not see either parent strike the other.
The son, Will Shanahan, who was 15 at the time of the incident, now asserts his mother “coerced” him to sign the document meant to assist her defense, according to a statement he provided to USA TODAY. He said the initial declaration, which indicated that police had treated his mother “unfairly,” was “false, dishonest and did not represent the accurate facts.”
“I did what she told me,” he said.
Jordinson stood by her account in an interview with USA TODAY and said her son’s 2010 statement was his idea.
In response to attacks on oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Iran is not just a U.S. problem. He said the U.S. goal is to "build international consensus to this international problem." (June 14) (Photo: AP)
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