Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan abruptly withdrew his name from consideration to take over the permanent Pentagon leadership post on Tuesday amid questions surrounding a series of domestic violence incidents that were brought to light during his background checks.
“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 in a statement Tuesday. “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.”
President Donald Trump announced the move in a series of tweets shortly before Shanahan’s statement, just a few hours after numerous news reports of potential problems with Shanahan’s FBI background check. The commander in chief praised Shanahan for his work as acting secretary for the last six months.
“Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who has done a wonderful job, has decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family,” Trump said on social media. “I thank Pat for his outstanding service.”
The move not only leaves continued uncertainty at the top Defense Department post but also creates another service secretary vacancy. Trump announced that Army Secretary Army Mark Esper will step in as the new acting secretary of defense.
Already, the Air Force is without its top official, after former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson stepped down from that post last month. Esper’s move will leave two of the three service secretary posts without a Senate-confirmed head. In addition, Shanahan’s promotion to acting defense secretary in January has left his previous post as the second-ranking civilian defense official without a permanent replacement for nearly half a year.
Shanahan’s departure is likely to cause increased worry on Capitol Hill, where numerous senators in recent days had questioned why his official nomination was delayed. Just last week, both Trump and Senate Republican leaders downplayed any concerns, saying the issue was mostly a paperwork problem.
In a statement, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, praised both Shanahan and Esper, but added that “it is critical that the president nominate, and that the Senate confirm, a permanent Secretary of Defense as quickly as possible. This job should be filled in a matter of a few weeks, not months.”
Shanahan was confirmed as deputy secretary of defense by a 92-7 vote almost two years ago, and was named the acting Pentagon head when former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was forced out of that Cabinet post on Jan. 1.
The 56-year-old nominee worked as an executive at Boeing prior to his work in the Trump administration and has received positive reviews from the commander in chief for his work overseeing and reforming Pentagon operations.
Tuesday was the day originally planned to be his confirmation hearing, but delays in background checks ended up scrapping those plans. Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee had been considering a new hearing date of just after Congress’ planned July 4 recess.
But in recent days, concerns around delays in Shanahan’s nomination began raising questions on Capitol Hill. Reports of domestic violence issues surfaced in several news reports for the first time on Monday. On Tuesday, in a lengthy interview published in the Washington Post, Shanahan detailed a series of events which included an attack by his teenage son on his ex-wife, an attack by his ex-wife on Shanahan, and allegations from her of physical violence by Shanahan.
In his statement Tuesday, Shanahan said he hopes stepping away from the confirmation process would end speculation and focus on those incidents.
“(My family’s) safety and well-being is my highest priority,” he said. “I would welcome the opportunity to be the Secretary of Defense, but not at the expense of being a good father.”
Neither Trump nor Shanahan said when he would officially step down from his current post and when Esper would take over. Shanahan said he would “coordinate an appropriate transition plan to ensure that the men and women in harm’s way receive all the support they need to continue protecting our great nation.”
Shanahan’s departure likely leaves the Pentagon without a permanent leader into the fall, given the time frame for a new candidate and new background checks.
Before this year, the department hadn’t gone without a Senate confirmed leader for more than two months since it became a Cabinet-level post in the late 1940s. Tuesday marked day 168 for the latest vacancy.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.