Shanahan drama shocks Capitol Hill, leaving Pentagon rudderless

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanDefense chief calls on European allies to be wary of China's investments, blasts Russia Pentagon chief approves 20 more miles of border wall Why Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary MORE abruptly withdrew from consideration Wednesday to lead the Pentagon under a cloud of allegations surrounding domestic violence within his family, leaving senators fuming and the Defense Department rudderless at a time of rising tensions with Iran.

Shanahan’s downfall came hours after published reports revealed new details about physical altercations with his ex-wife nearly a decade ago and after he appeared to be working as recently as Monday night to save his nomination with a sit-down interview with The Washington Post.

And it raises questions anew about how much longer the Pentagon will go without a confirmed leader during a time of turmoil with Iran many lawmakers fear could turn to war.

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The announcement left senators angry they had been left in the dark about many of the details from Shanahan’s past even though he had already gone through a confirmation process to be deputy Defense secretary.

“I feel that there was possibly a deliberate concealment here,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I think there ought to be an investigation by the IG [inspector general] in the Department of Defense. … There ought to be a complete investigation of that whole process. …This is potentially a violation of criminal law.”

Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon watchdog says Syria withdrawal hurt ISIS fight | Vindman testifies on third day of public hearings | Lawmakers to wrap up defense bill talks this week Lawmakers expect to finish defense policy bill negotiations this week Bipartisan senators urge national security adviser to appoint 5G coordinator MORE (R.I.), the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he was aware during Shanahan’s deputy secretary confirmation of a “contentious divorce,” but that many of Tuesday’s reported details were new.

“The more we know, the better off we are,” Reed said when asked if the committee should have known the rest.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE made the announcement with a pair of midday tweets saying Shanahan was withdrawing and that Army Secretary Mark Esper would take his place as acting Defense secretary.

In a statement a couple hours later, Shanahan said he was bowing out to avoid forcing his children to “relive a traumatic chapter” in their lives.

“After having been confirmed for Deputy Secretary less than two years ago, 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,” he said. “I would welcome the opportunity to be Secretary of Defense, but not at the expense of being a good father.”

Shanahan also said he is resigning his position as deputy Defense secretary, which he held since July 2017.

The White House first announced in May that Trump intended to nominate Shanahan as Defense secretary. But his nomination was never officially sent to the Senate.

As the nomination languished without becoming official, questions began to swirl about whether Trump was souring on Shanahan.

Meanwhile, rumors began to circulate in Washington circles that Shanahan’s FBI background investigation was being held up by something involving his divorce.

Those domestic issues spilled out into the open Tuesday, first with a USA Today report in the morning and then a Washington Post report published just after Trump’s tweets.

According to the reports, Shanahan and his then-wife Kimberley Jordinson got into a late-night argument in August 2010 that escalated into a physical fight. Jordinson reportedly told police Shanahan punched her in the stomach, while he told police she was the aggressor and punched him “10 or 20 times.”

She was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, but prosecutors later dropped the charges citing a lack of evidence.

The Washington Post also detailed a 2011 incident in which Shanahan's and Jordinson’s son hit her with a baseball bat, leaving her unconscious in a pool of blood.

After the incident, Shanahan flew to Florida, where Jordinson and their son then lived, rushing to the defense of his son. That included writing a memo to Jordinson’s brother arguing his son had acted in self-defense, according to the Post.

“Use of a baseball bat in self-defense will likely be viewed as an imbalance of force,” Shanahan wrote, according to the Post. “However, Will’s mother harassed him for nearly three hours before the incident.”

In an interview with the Post on Monday night at his Virginia apartment, Shanahan said he regretted the memo.

“Quite frankly, it’s difficult to relive that moment and the passage was difficult for me to read. I was wrong to write those three sentences,” Shanahan told the newspaper.

Trump told reporters Tuesday that he first learned about the allegations Monday but did not force Shanahan to withdraw.

Trump defended Shanahan as a “wonderful person” who is going through a “tough time.”

A White House official said staff was aware of rumors about the incident for months, but it's unclear how many of the details were known.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon watchdog says Syria withdrawal hurt ISIS fight | Vindman testifies on third day of public hearings | Lawmakers to wrap up defense bill talks this week Lawmakers expect to finish defense policy bill negotiations this week Bipartisan senators urge national security adviser to appoint 5G coordinator MORE (R-Okla.) said Tuesday he was “surprised” by the announcement. He was told Shanahan was withdrawing in a call from Trump just before Senate lunches Tuesday afternoon.

Inhofe said Trump was concerned about the “disruption” the domestic violence allegations would cause to the confirmation process.

“What he shared with me was they both thought it was going to get worse before it gets better, let’s just bail out,” Inhofe said.

Inhofe has been vocal about the need for a permanent Defense secretary, pushing Trump to nominate Shanahan as the post remained unfilled for the longest period in the Pentagon’s history.

Inhofe reiterated Tuesday that being an acting secretary “lessens your impact” on the world stage, something particularly important right now “with the stuff that’s taking place in Iran.”

Trump, though, insisted the Pentagon would be prepared to take actions to counter Iran, even without a permanent head.

“We are very prepared for Iran, regardless of what goes,” Trump said.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMcConnell hopes Senate impeachment trial 'not too lengthy a process' Hillicon Valley: Progressives oppose funding bill over surveillance authority | Senators call for 5G security coordinator | Facebook gets questions over location tracking | Louisiana hit by ransomware attack Prisons chief: FBI investigating whether 'criminal enterprise' played role in Epstein death MORE (R-S.C.), a Trump ally and prominent GOP voice on defense issues, said it was “probably a good decision” for Shanahan to withdraw.

“I think he’s done a good job, I like him, but the issues that he’s confronting would probably make confirmation tough,” Graham said of Shanahan.

Shanahan’s road to becoming Defense secretary had been rocky from the start. The 30-year Boeing executive, whose first job in government was as deputy Defense secretary in the Trump administration, was dogged by allegations of tipping the scales for his former employee while serving in the Pentagon.

An inspector general investigation that concluded in April cleared Shanahan of the charges of violating his ethics agreement.

Shanahan also faced questions about his level of experience and ability to handle weighty strategic issues having only served in government since 2017.

The questions were amplified by comparisons to his predecessor, James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Amazon to challenge Pentagon's 'war cloud' decision in federal court Former Mattis staffer: Trump 'shooting himself in the foot' on foreign policy MORE, whom senators from both parties admired as one of the so-called adults in the room reining in Trump’s more dangerous impulses.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis Schumer2020 Republicans accuse Schumer of snubbing legislation Schumer: Leadership trying to work out competing surprise medical bill measures Top GOP senator: Drug pricing action unlikely before end of year MORE (D-N.Y.) said the Shanahan episode highlights the “chaos” in the Trump administration.

“This is a very difficult time, with everything going on in Iran and all the provocations and counteractions, and to have no secretary of Defense at this time is appalling,” Schumer said. “It also shows we need vetting. They don’t like to vet all these assistant secretaries.”

It’s unclear who Trump will nominate for Defense secretary now. Shanahan was chosen after several other candidates took their name out of contention.

Esper, who Trump has named the new acting secretary, was said to want the job prior to Shanahan’s selection.

Esper was a lobbyist at defense contractor Raytheon for seven years prior to becoming Army secretary. He also had a slew of positions at the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Esper graduated from West Point in 1986 and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. His Army career includes a combat tour in Iraq during the Gulf War.

Several Republican senators have already said they’d support Esper should he be nominated.

Graham called Esper an “excellent choice” and “confirmable.”

Asked whether he’d support Esper if he’s nominated, Inhofe said, “I would.”

“I think a lot of Mark Esper,” Inhofe said. “I’ve watched his style of working with the troops. He does really a good job.”

Still, Esper’s lobbyist past could bring up some of the issues that dogged Shanahan on potential conflicts of interest.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement that Esper “risk[s] being tainted by his previous work for a major defense contractor. The group’s allegations against Shanahan in part prompted the inspector general investigation.

“While Esper may not have had sway over these types of deals as secretary of the Army, as acting secretary of Defense he will have potential influence over such deals, as well as over the controversial proposed merger of Raytheon and UTC to become the second largest defense company in the U.S.,” Bookbinder said. “His ethics agreement — and his ability to follow it — will be something we will be watching closely.”

Jordan Fabian contributed to this report, which was updated on June 19 at 7:52 a.m.