Acting U.S. Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan has withdrawn from consideration to head the U.S. military, President Donald Trump announced on Tuesday, stoking uncertainty about the leadership of the Pentagon at a moment of rising tension with Iran.
The decision comes amid reports of domestic violence in Shanahan’s family nine years ago, including between his ex-wife and his son and another account of violence between him and his ex-wife. The alleged incidents emerged as the FBI was conducting background checks ahead of a Senate confirmation hearing.
Shanahan stepped down Tuesday citing a “painful” family situation that would hurt his children and reopen “wounds we have worked years to heal.”
“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.
“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.”
He provided no other details.
As a result, he said he asked to be withdrawn from the nomination process, and he resigned from his previous post as deputy defence secretary. He said he would work on an “appropriate transition,” but it wasn’t clear how quickly he will leave the job.
Trump announced Shanahan’s departure in a tweet and said the secretary of the army, Mark Esper, will take over as the new acting defence secretary. Esper, who is widely respected inside the Pentagon, had been considered a leading contender for the job if Shanahan was ultimately not confirmed.
Delays in confirmation process
But the decision, which Trump said owed to Shanahan’s desire to spend more time with his family, promises to prolong what has already been the longest period without a confirmed secretary of defence. Shanahan was the longest official in history to serve as secretary of defence in only an acting capacity, according to Pentagon records.
The post atop the Pentagon has not been filled permanently since James Mattis stepped down in at the end of 2018 following policy differences with Trump.
Trump announced in May that he would nominate Shanahan, but the formal nomination process in the Senate had been inexplicably delayed
Shanahan, a former Boeing executive with no prior experience in national security matters, has been leading the Pentagon as acting secretary since Jan. 1, a highly unusual arrangement for arguably the most sensitive cabinet position.
Trump’s critics had already questioned whether Shanahan, without Senate confirmation, had the power to stand up to Trump if he had a difference of opinion on military strategy, since his nomination could be withdrawn at any time.
Trump’s announcement of Shanahan’s decision came shortly after USA Today reported that the FBI had been examining a nine-year-old domestic dispute involving Shanahan and his then-wife as part of a background check for the job as Pentagon chief.
The newspaper reported that Shanahan said he “never laid a hand on” his former wife but also reported that both he and his wife had claimed they had been punched by the other.
The Washington Post reported a gruesome incident involving Shanahan’s teenage son allegedly hitting his mother, Shanahan’s ex-wife, with a baseball bat, leaving her unconscious in a pool of blood.
“Bad things can happen to good families … and this is a tragedy, really,” Shanahan was quoted telling the Washington Post this week. He added the disclosure of the incident would “ruin my son’s life.”
Pentagon officials could not be immediately reached for comment about the domestic violence reports.