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Patrick Shanahan withdraws from consideration as Trump’s secretary of defense

The president said Army Secretary Mark Esper will now serve as acting Pentagon chief.

Memorial Day Observed At Arlington National Cemetery
Patrick Shanahan delivering Memorial Day remarks as acting defense secretary.
Tom Brenner/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Patrick Shanahan, President Donald Trump’s pick for defense secretary, has withdrawn his nomination, extending what was already the longest stretch that the Pentagon has gone without a Senate-confirmed leader.

Shanahan, a former top Boeing executive, has been serving as the acting secretary of defense since January 1, taking over after Secretary James Mattis resigned. After months in the acting role, Trump finally announced in May he was nominating Shanahan for the top job permanently, though the White House never formally submitted his nomination to the Senate.

On Tuesday, the president announced on Twitter that Shanahan would not “go forward with his confirmation process,” naming Army Secretary Mark Esper as the new acting defense secretary.

Trump’s announcement is an abrupt end to what was already starting to become a beleaguered confirmation fight for Shanahan. While Trump indicated Shanahan wanted to “devote more time to his family,” his announcement coincided with reports of past domestic disputes, which the FBI had been examining as part of Shanahan’s background check, according to USA Today.

At least one of the incidents involved Shanahan and his ex-wife, both of whom accused the other of punching them in an August 2010 incident. Shanahan’s ex-wife was arrested after the incident, though charges were later dropped. Shanahan denied the allegations that he assaulted his ex-wife to both USA Today and the Washington Post.

In another disturbing incident reported by the Post, Shanahan defended his 17-year-old son who allegedly beat his mother with a baseball bat. Per the Post:

In November 2011, Shanahan rushed to defend his then 17-year-old son, William Shanahan, in the days after the teenager brutally beat his mother. The attack had left Shanahan’s ex-wife unconscious in a pool of blood, her skull fractured and with internal injuries that required surgery, according to court and police records.

Two weeks later, Shanahan sent his ex-wife’s brother a memo 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,” Shanahan wrote. “However, Will’s mother harassed him for nearly three hours before the incident.”

Shanahan, in an interview with the Post, said he regretted writing the memo. “I have never believed Will’s attack on his mother was an act of self-defense or justified,” Shanahan said. “I don’t believe violence is appropriate ever, and certainly never any justification for attacking someone with a baseball bat.”

These incidents were not made public when Shanahan was confirmed as the No. 2 at the Pentagon in July 2017, but Shanahan reportedly faced an unusually long FBI background check for the secretary role. This, combined with other questions about Shanahan’s qualifications for the role and some reticence among lawmakers, may have ultimately derailed his nomination — and left the Pentagon without a confirmed defense secretary amid escalating tensions with Iran and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.

Maybe Shanahan’s nomination was doomed from the start

Shanahan served as Mattis’s deputy, running the day-to-day operations at the Pentagon, before taking over once the retired four-star general resigned over objections to Trump’s Syria policy. But once Shanahan took charge, critics questioned his ability to lead and advocate for the interests of the Department of Defense.

Shanahan held the interim job for months without a formal nomination. One of the hold-ups had likely been an ethics complaint that alleged Shanahan boosted aircrafts made by Boeing — his employer of about 30 years — over that of Lockheed Martin’s.

As Vox’s Alex Ward reported, the Pentagon’s inspector general investigated this complaint, but in April, concluded that “Shanahan fully complied with his ethics agreements and his ethical obligations regarding Boeing and its competitors.”

That likely cleared the way for Trump to name Shanahan as his pick to permanently lead the department, though the president never sent his name to the Senate. Asked about the state of Shanahan’s nomination in an interview with Fox & Friends last week, Trump replied, “We are going to see.”

That came amid reports that Shanahan wasn’t a particularly popular choice for the job. He performed poorly during congressional hearings and has gotten a reputation for being overly deferential to the White House — particularly toward National Security Adviser John Bolton, Politico reported last week:

Even worse, Defense Department officials with direct knowledge of Shanahan’s operations said, he has tolerated a practice by Bolton and the National Security Council staff of calling Pentagon underlings and inserting themselves deep into the chain of command. That means the people who work for Shanahan are unprotected from interference by White House staff, who are not in the military’s chain of authority.

“These kinds of surgical strikes into the building didn’t happen with the previous regime,” said one Defense Department official who has worked with Shanahan, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid about their boss. “The NSC staff habitually reaches down into the bowels of the building.”

This, combined with the latest revelations about these possible domestic disputes, likely made Shanahan’s nomination untenable.

But it comes at pretty precarious time. Shanahan just announced on Monday that the US was sending an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East to counter Iran, another sign of increasing tensions in the region that’s led to fears that a miscalculation could make Washington and Tehran stumble into a conflict.

With another interim chief in charge, it will do little to assure allies and partners of stability at Pentagon.