After surprise revelations of family domestic abuse ended Patrick Shanahan’s bid to become defense secretary, Democratic lawmakers are wondering why the nine-year-old allegations weren’t raised in early confirmation work and whether they indicate troublesome oversights in the White House vetting process.
Shanahan — who has served as the acting defense secretary since January — abruptly withdrew his name Tuesday from consideration for the top Pentagon post amid news reports that he minimized the severity of his son’s attack on his ex-wife and allegations of physical abuse between the former couple.
President Donald Trump said Tuesday that Shanahan was not asked to resign as a result of the domestic violence reports, and he did not know about them until they came to light in recent days.
But Trump also downplayed concerns that the allegations should have been caught two years ago, when Shanahan was nominated (and confirmed) for the deputy defense secretary post.
“We have a very good vetting process,” the president said. “And you take a look at our Cabinet and our secretaries, it’s very good. But this is something that came up a little bit over the last short period of time.”
But Democrats on Capitol Hill said they see it as more of a pattern of poor work by administration officials in ensuring proper background checks are being conducted.
“Why wasn't this known by the White House, long before he got to this level?” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday. “And so now the most powerful military in the world has been without a Senate-confirmed secretary since Secretary (Jim) Mattis resigned in December of last year.”
The Senate’s No. 2 Democrat, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, said the problems show that administration officials “have taken a dim view on the importance of background checks and investigation.”
Shanahan was easily confirmed to deputy defense secretary role 23 months ago, by a 92 to 7 chamber vote. At the time, lawmakers had no public discussion of any family problems or domestic violence issues.
Senators on the armed services committee, which took the lead in that confirmation process, said they were surprised by reports over the last few days regarding the allegations.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., (who was not leading the committee at that time) said he had knowledge that Shanahan “has been accused of things for a long period of time” but thought those issues had been cleared in earlier vetting processes.
Asked if he still trusts the FBI’s thoroughness in background checks, Inhofe said the process “is probably alright” but also acknowledged it had limits.
Chris Brose, staff director of the committee two years ago, said on social media Tuesday night that the committee had no knowledge of the allegations against Shanahan.
“The first I learned about this was in the media today,” he wrote. “SASC deserves to know why.”
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine and a member of the armed services committee for the last six years, said that those FBI reports on nominees typically only go to the chairman and ranking member of the committee.
“It's difficult for the members of the committee to see the details of an FBI report,” he said in a CNN interview Wednesday. “I honestly don't know whether that was in the FBI report when he was confirmed as deputy.”
Committee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., confirmed that some details of Shanahan’s divorce were in that report, including allegations of physical abuse. Shanahan was never charged with any crime.
“There were concerns, but other details that have emerged since then that were not in the report,” Reed said Wednesday. “I think we have to look for a much more rigorous process (in future background checks).”
The White House received significant criticism for its past vetting of several high-profile nominations, including Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanuagh (accused of sexual assault after his nomination) and Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson (who withdrew after allegations of unprofessional workplace conduct).
In contrast with other lawmakers’ concerns, fellow armed services committee member Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on Tuesday put the blame on Shanahan, saying that failing to disclose the domestic violence allegations to lawmakers were “potentially a violation of criminal law.”
He also asked for a full briefing for senators on what information was provided to committee staff on Shanahan’s past.
“I think we should know more about what the process was, and whether there was full disclosure to the committee of everything we needed to know in evaluating his nomination,” Blumenthal said.
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.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.