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Acting defense secretary bows out of running to be confirmed as Pentagon chief

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 6/19/2019 Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe, Paul Sonne
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Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan withdrew from consideration to be confirmed to the job permanently, President Trump said Tuesday, plunging the Pentagon into leadership upheaval for the second time in six months. 

In a message on Twitter, Trump said that Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who has led the Pentagon on an acting basis since early this year, had “decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family.”

Trump thanked Shanahan for his “outstanding service” and said that Mark T. Esper, who has served as Army secretary since 2017, would become his new acting Pentagon chief.

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A former top lobbyist with Raytheon and a U.S. Military Academy classmate of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Esper served 25 years in the Army and the Virginia National Guard and was a deputy assistant secretary of defense under President George W. Bush. He was also national security adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and legislative director to then-Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb).

Esper will officially take over responsibilities on Monday, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in a statement.

But it was uncertain whether Trump intends to nominate Esper to be confirmed in the job. Individuals familiar with the conversations said other people were also being discussed, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and retired Army Gen. Jack Keane. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has been considered previously, but it’s unclear whether he would leave the Senate for the post.

Shanahan pulled himself out of the running Tuesday morning as media organizations including The Washington Post published reports shedding light for the first time on details of his contentious divorce, including an incident in which his son attacked his ex-wife with a baseball bat.

In a statement, Shanahan said it was “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 he had decided “after significant reflection” to remove himself from the confirmation process and resign. “I would welcome the opportunity to be secretary of defense, but not at the expense of being a good father,” he said.

Shanahan’s decision upends what had been expected to be an imminent confirmation process, injecting a new element of uncertainty into the Pentagon’s highest levels at a moment when officials are scrambling to retain a technological edge over China and respond to recent threats from Iran.

The turmoil atop the Pentagon comes amid a broader leadership vacuum across the Trump administration, where many of the political positions remain unfilled or occupied by people serving in an acting capacity.

In addition to the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the Small Business Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Aviation Administration are also being run by individuals serving in acting capacities.

Several other positions, including White House chief of staff, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs and United Nations ambassador, are filled by those functioning in an acting role.

Relative unknown

When Shanahan joined the Trump administration as deputy defense secretary in 2017, he was seen as an experienced businessman who could oversee a massive military budget and advance reforms in acquisition, technology and space issues.

When Trump tapped him in late 2018 to become acting secretary after his predecessor, Jim Mattis, resigned over differences with the president, Shanahan remained a relatively unknown figure outside the Pentagon.

As Pentagon chief, he faced a Washington establishment skeptical that he had the chops to oversee the world’s most powerful military at a time of transformation. At times, he fueled those concerns by deferring to subordinates during congressional testimony or taking a back seat to other officials when publicly addressing international crises.

Critics faulted Shanahan for failing to stand up to the president on issues that many within the Pentagon view as overly political, including using the military budget to fund the president’s border wall.

Even as Shanahan traveled the world, authorized military operations and met with his counterparts, his six-month tenure remained clouded by uncertainty about his fate.

During his first months in the job, speculation mounted about whether Trump would pick him to be confirmed. In May, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said he would be nominated. The announcement came just after the Pentagon’s inspector general cleared him of wrongdoing in a probe related to his ties to Boeing, his former employer and a major defense contractor.

But even then the White House failed to formally nominate him, despite the fact he had initially been expected to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a confirmation hearing in mid-June.

Shanahan’s decision to step aside appeared to have come together quickly in the space of a few days, even as a team of officials responsible for helping him prepare for his confirmation process predicted he would go forward.

When Shanahan met with Trump at the White House on Monday to discuss Iran, said a defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations, a potential decision to step aside did not come up. As late as Monday night, White House officials were telling reporters Shanahan would be confirmed.

On Tuesday morning, as additional media outlets prepared to publish stories about his family, Shanahan returned to the White House and told Trump he would withdraw, officials said. Trump tweeted the announcement shortly afterward from the Oval Office.

Senators from both political parties questioned why they did not have advance notice of the allegations and criticized the White House vetting process.

“I don’t understand it,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “These names, once they are out there, before they get made public, there has been a level of vetting that has gone on — so it does cause you to wonder.”

Speaking to reporters before departing for his reelection rally in Orlando, Trump said he did not ask Shanahan to withdraw his nomination and considered it “a tough time” for him. Trump also defended his administration’s vetting, calling it “very good.”

“You take a look at our cabinet and our secretary; it’s very good,” Trump said. “We have a great vetting process, but this is something that came up a little bit over the last short period of time, and as you know, Pat was acting. Acting gives you much greater flexibility, a lot easier to do things. So that’s the way it is. Too bad.”

'Critical' challenges

Two Republicans familiar with White House discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, said Shanahan had hoped to soldier through the process but recognized after discussions with White House officials that a confirmation process would likely unspool his family’s past.

The two Republicans said that Trump is now looking for a reliable, well-known nominee — someone who can be easily confirmed. The president wants to avoid drama and is being told by senators that he doesn’t have capital to spend on a tough nomination fight, they said.

Potentially introducing a further complication to the situation, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act will not permit Esper to be the Pentagon chief nominee while holding the job of acting defense secretary, said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine general who has assisted in defense secretary confirmations, including Shanahan’s.

He said Shanahan did not face the Vacancies Act as deputy defense secretary because under a different law organizing the U.S. military, he was allowed to fill the acting Pentagon chief position under succession guidelines.

Army officials did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, praised Esper, saying he had “shown excellent judgment” as Army secretary, but urged the rapid confirmation of a nominee.

“For the sake of our national security, we need a confirmed Secretary of Defense — not just an acting — and I hope we can get to that point as quickly as possible,” he said in a statement.

The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), said that Shanahan’s departure means “we’ll have another acting secretary of defense as the White House continues to struggle to fill key positions.”

“At a time when we face critical national security and budgetary challenges, it is imperative that we have a confirmed civilian leader atop the Pentagon who is accountable to the president, Congress and the American people,” he said.

The Army’s No. 2 political appointee, Undersecretary Ryan D. McCarthy, previously was acting Army secretary until Esper took over and probably will step into that role again.

missy.ryan@washpost.com

dan.lamothe@washpost.com

paul.sonne@washpost.com

Josh Dawsey, Robert Costa and Lisa Rein contributed to this report.

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