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Shanahan drops bid to lead Pentagon, Trump picks army veteran as replacement

Published: Updated:

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan stepped down Tuesday before his formal nomination ever went to the Senate, citing a “painful” family situation that would hurt his children and reopen “wounds we have worked years to heal.”

President Donald Trump announced Shanahan’s departure in a tweet, and said Army Secretary Mark Esper would be the new acting Pentagon chief.

“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,” Shanahan said in a statement. “Ultimately, their safety and well-being is my highest priority.”

Trump's pick for new Defense Secretary is an Army veteran who served in the first Iraq war and also has experience as a national security adviser on Capitol Hill as well as a defense industry lobbyist.

Trump on Tuesday said Mark Esper, his current Army secretary, would lead the Defense Department on an acting basis.

"I know Mark, and have no doubt he will do a fantastic job!" the president tweeted.

He later told reporters that he would most likely nominate Esper for the permanent job.

"Frankly this could happen very quickly for Mark Esper," Trump said. "He's very experienced. He's been around all of the things that we've been talking about for a very long period of time."

Esper was sworn in as Army secretary in November 2017 following a seven-year stint as vice president for government relations at defense contractor Raytheon.

Esper previously served a national security adviser for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

He was policy director for the House Armed Services Committee and a professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations and Government Affairs committees and also advised former Obama administration Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel when Hagel was in the Senate.

He's also served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense and was a war planner on the Army staff.

Esper spent more than a decade in the Army, including serving in the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 with the 101st Airborne Division. He has won the Bronze Star Medal and other awards.

"He has a great background. I know him and I think he'll do very well in the acting role," said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., a close Trump ally who speaks frequently with the president.

Shanahan’s ‘painful’ past

Shanahan’s withdrawal from one of the most critical positions in the government comes at a time of escalating tensions in the Middle East, a day after the US authorized sending additional troops to the region, and after months of unexplained delays in the confirmation process.

The acting defense secretary did not provide specifics, but court records show a volatile family history around the time of his 2011 divorce. The couple had been married since 1986.

His ex-wife, Kimberley, was arrested several times on charges that included burglary, property damage and assault. The assault charge was a misdemeanor for domestic violence in August 2010 when, according to police records, she hit Shanahan a number of times, giving him a bloody nose and black eye.

The police report said she was not injured, and he was not charged.

There was also a separate November 2011 incident in which the couple’s son, who was 17 at the time, struck his mother with a baseball bat in the home where he lived with her in Sarasota, Florida, according to court records. He pleaded guilty to battery and was sentenced to four years of probation.

In an interview with The Washington Post shortly before Trump announced that Shanahan was withdrawing his nomination, Shanahan spoke about the circumstances surrounding his 2011 divorce and said he didn’t want to drag his children through the experience again.

“Bad things can happen to good families ... and this is a tragedy, really,” Shanahan told the Post.

In his statement, Shanahan said he asked to be withdrawn from the nomination process and would work on an “appropriate transition.”

The Pentagon, in a statement, said Esper will take over the job at midnight Sunday. Esper and Shanahan met at length Tuesday to begin transition planning.

In his tweet, Trump simply said Shanahan had done “a wonderful job” but would step aside to “devote more time to his family.” Later, Trump told reporters at the White House that he heard about the problems for the first time Monday.

“I didn’t ask him to withdraw, but he walked in this morning,” said Trump. “He said it’s going to be a rough time for him because of obviously what happened.”

The post atop the Pentagon has not been filled permanently since retired Gen. James Mattis abruptly stepped down in December after delivering a blunt letter to Trump outlining a list of foreign policy differences and a warning that the administration should not allow relations with allies to fray.

Shanahan was put in place as acting secretary, but it wasn’t until May that Trump announced he would nominate Shanahan. That formal nomination has never come, inexplicably delaying the Senate process.