Well, that was fast.
Just over a month after saying he would nominate Patrick Shanahan as defense secretary, President Donald Trump on Tuesday tweeted that he would not do so, leaving the United States without a defense secretary for the longest stretch in the country’s history.
In his signature style, the president thanked Shanahan for his service and showed him the door, while naming Mark Esper, the current secretary of the army, as his choice to head the Pentagon:
….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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2019
On May 9, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders — who also last week said she was stepping down — announced the president’s intention to nominate Shanahan via Twitter.
Shanahan, it seems, opted to withdraw his name from consideration for the post. But the exact reasons for the abrupt move are unclear.
All that is known right now is that Trump reportedly sought alternatives to Shanahan last week. Then, there were reports that Shanahan’s FBI background check had hit upon a 2010 domestic violence disturbance that resulted in the arrest of his then-wife. He released a statement about the incident on Monday, in which he called it a “painful and deeply personal family situation from long ago.”
Shanahan maintains that that he never struck his wife, and that “substance abuse and other emotional issues” played a role in his marital troubles. He wrote, “Though my marriage ended in sorrow and disappointment, I never laid a hand on my then-wife and cooperated fully in a thorough law enforcement investigation that resulted in her being charged with assault against me—charges which I had dropped in the interest of my family.”
By Tuesday, he had withdrawn himself from consideration as secretary of defense before his confirmation hearing, which was scheduled to take place the same day (earlier in the day, it was announced that the hearing would be delayed).
Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, had neither government, military, national security, nor foreign policy experience before being named deputy secretary of defense in July 2017. He became interim secretary of defense in January 2019, shortly after James Mattis stepped down over a disagreement with Trump’s surprise decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.
That troop withdrawal was ultimately delayed, and then, it seems, tabled.
Even before Shanahan withdrew his name from cabinet consideration, the United States has been in the midst of the longest period of time without a secretary of defense — and it’s been quite a precarious period.
Assuming an aggressive stance against Iran, which has been blamed for last week’s tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman, the United States plans to send 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East.
While Trump says he does not want war, the deployment of the troops might send a hostile signal to Iran. And even if war does not break out in the Persian Gulf, the United States is currently at war in seven countries, and is embroiled in some kind of military engagement in dozens more.
Shanahan was seen by his critics as someone who would not be able to stand up to Trump, and certainly not to National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has been advocating for military engagement with Iran for years.
Shanahan was also investigated by the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General on allegations that he had promoted Boeing’s products for government contracts and purchases. The probe cleared him in April, concluding that he had complied with “ethics agreements and ethical obligations regarding Boeing.”
Shanahan’s replacement, pending confirmation, is cut from a somewhat different cloth. Esper has military experience, having served in the first Gulf War, for which he was awarded Bronze Star.
Esper was also chief of staff at the conservative Heritage Foundation, the think tank where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave his first foreign policy speech on Iran. He has also served as a staffer on Senate committees and was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Negotiations Policy during the George W. Bush administration.
When asked in March by CNBC to name the greatest challenges facing the United States, Esper replied, “I think the biggest immediate challenge is North Korea. And then as we look in the out years, between 2025 and 2035, Russia. But the biggest challenge is clearly China, in the years 2035 and beyond. I mean, the size of the country, its economy, and everything, they’re — it is a big strategic competitor for the entire Department of Defense and country.”
Like Shanahan, Esper has ties to the defense industry. For nearly a decade, he was a lobbyist for Raytheon, which is the manufacturer of the bombs being dropped by Saudi Arabia on Yemen. Earlier this month, the Trump administration signed off on allowing Raytheon to share bomb-making technology with Saudi Arabia.
According to his financial disclosure forms, Esper made $1.5 million in the last year he worked for Raytheon.