President Trump on Tuesday tapped Army Secretary Mark T. Esper to lead the Pentagon at least temporarily after acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan abruptly withdrew his name from consideration to be the next permanent chief, saying the confirmation process is proving too difficult for his family.
Mr. Shanahan said in a statement that continuing with the process would be devastating to his children and would force them to relive traumatic personal experiences dating back nearly a decade. The FBI has reportedly investigated domestic violence incidents involving Mr. Shanahan, his wife at the time and his son as part of a background check that delayed his confirmation.
Mr. Esper, meanwhile, steps into the spotlight and a potential nomination process that most in the wider defense community hope will go smoothly after months of uncertainty.
As Mr. Shanahan’s nomination languished over recent weeks, speculation mounted that the president would turn to Mr. Esper to take over at the Pentagon, at least temporarily. Mr. Trump has not nominated Mr. Esper to serve as defense secretary in a permanent capacity.
When asked Tuesday afternoon whether he intends to make the nomination, the president told reporters, “Most likely. That’s what I’m thinking about doing.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said he supports Mr. Esper, and Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Esper should be formally nominated.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said the situation “leaves us in a position where this president has to send up a nomination, and that has to be done very quickly.”
Mr. Esper dodged the question last week when asked by The Washington Times whether he believed Mr. Trump was considering him over Mr. Shanahan. “I have no comment on any of that,” he said after a speech to defense industry leaders in Arlington, Virginia. “I’m very privileged and pleased to be the Army secretary.”
An Army veteran who served in the Gulf War, Mr. Esper brings a wealth of experience to the job. The 55-year-old father of three spent years in the defense industry and on Capitol Hill and served in the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense for negotiations policy.
Before becoming secretary of the Army in November 2017, he spent seven years as vice president for government relations at Raytheon, one of the nation’s top defense contractors. Mr. Esper also served in a variety of roles on Capitol Hill, including national security adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and policy director for the House Armed Services Committee.
He also has worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center, the Aerospace Industries Association and the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Mr. Shanahan sought to downplay any hype about his decision.
“The confirmation process should focus on securing our nation against threats, readiness and the future of our military, and ensuring the highest quality care and support for service members and their families,” he said in a statement. “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.
“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,” he said. “Ultimately, their safety and well-being is my highest priority. I would welcome the opportunity to be secretary of defense, but not at the expense of being a good father.”
In one reported incident, Mr. Shanahan’s then-wife punched him in the face. In a separate incident, his son allegedly attacked his mother with a baseball bat. Mr. Shanahan discussed those incidents in an interview with The Washington Post this week.
“Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who has done a wonderful job, has decided not to go forward with his confirmation process so that he can devote more time to his family,” the president tweeted. “I thank Pat for his outstanding service and will be naming Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, to be the new Acting Secretary of Defense. I know Mark, and have no doubt he will do a fantastic job!”
The unexpected announcement will bring about a change in leadership at the Pentagon just as military tensions between the U.S. and Iran escalate. Hours before withdrawing his name, Mr. Shanahan announced that an additional 1,000 American troops would be deployed to the Middle East to counter an increasingly belligerent Iran.
“However well-qualified Secretary Esper may be, it is critical that the president nominate, and that the Senate confirm, a permanent secretary of defense as quickly as possible. This job should be filled in a matter of a few weeks, not months,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
Sen. Angus S. King Jr., Maine independent and an Armed Services Committee member, praised Mr. Esper.
“I like him. I think he’s done a good job as secretary of the Army,” Mr. King said. “He’s always been responsive.”
“I’m not thrilled that the next acting defense secretary is a former Raytheon executive,” said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight. “As tensions increase over Iran, we need a permanent secretary of defense who has the credibility necessary to make sure the Pentagon is acting in the best interests of our national security, not what’s in the best interest of contractors.”
Mr. Mattis stepped down amid deep disagreements with the White House over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.
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