Another of President Donald Trump’s prospects for an important position fell through Tuesday, as Trump announced he’d be replacing Patrick Shanahan as acting defense secretary. Shanahan had been serving in the role since January, though Trump only nominated him for it in May.
Shanahan’s withdrawal from consideration followed press reports that the FBI was investigating domestic abuse concerns from his past — raising questions as to how he was serving in such lofty positions in the first place.
More concerning, according to a report from CBS News, White House officials were aware of at least one of those instances long before Shanahan was ever considered for the job.
The first alleged incident took place in 2010 between Shanahan and his now-former wife, Kimberley Jordinson, as reported by USA Today. Both Shanahan and Jordinson claimed in reports that the other was to blame for the violent clash, with Jordinson standing by her claim that Shanahan punched her in the stomach several times and that her son came to her defense with a baseball bat in hand. The police claimed, however, that she was the aggressor, as Shanahan had clear injuries and she did not.
The Washington Post reported separately on a 2011 incident in which Shanahan wrote a memo defending his 17-year-old son, after his son allegedly attacked Jordinson with a baseball bat, knocking her unconscious in a pool of her own blood and fracturing her skull.
Following reporting on these incidents this week, Shanahan withdrew himself from consideration, prompting Trump to announce Tuesday that he was naming Army Secretary Mark Esper as his new acting defense secretary.
Shanahan had served as Trump’s deputy secretary of defense for nearly two years before his promotion, having been confirmed by the Senate in July 2017.
It’s unclear how he secured the number-two position in the department, and then the number one acting position, without these incidents having ever come up. Senate aids and a key lawmaker told USA Today that the allegations would have been a serious barrier to his confirmation, particularly given that violence against women is a serious issue the military needs to address. They were not aware of the incidents during his first confirmation process.
According to CBS News, which cited two senior administration officials with knowledge of the matter, the White House was reportedly aware of the 2011 incident involving Shanahan’s son when Trump floated him for the top Defense job, but did not know about the 2010 incident. The outlet also reported that the White House was aware of the 2011 incident “dating back to when Bill Shine was White House communications director.”
The decision to nominate Shanahan for the top role at the Defense Department, regardless of those issues, reflects how little consideration Trump has placed on properly filling vacancies. In an interview with Fox & Friends last week, he admitted that he doesn’t care much about filling the many vacancies he’s had throughout his entire term — let alone the record amount of turnover. He also blamed Senate Democrats for slowing down the confirmation process for those he has tried to fill.
Trump has also shown a penchant for circumventing that vetting process — backed by both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) himself in 2009, when President Barack Obama was trying to push nominees through — by instead relying on “acting” positions, including for the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. In January, he admitted that he likes keeping Cabinet secretaries in “acting” capacities, saying it gave him “more flexibility.”
Not only does that flexibility appear to include wielding control over whether those secretaries get to keep their job, it also spares him having to face the scrutiny of the Senate confirmation process, which might unveil some of the more troubling aspects of their pasts.
Trump has maintained he was not aware of the domestic violence concerns from Shanahan’s past, despite what his own officials told CBS News.
“I had heard about it yesterday for the first time. I didn’t know about it. I heard about it yesterday. It’s very unfortunate. Very unfortunate,” he said speaking with reporters on Tuesday.
He added, “We have a very good vetting process. You take a look at our Cabinet and our secretary is very good. But we have a great vetting process. This is something that came up a little bit over the last short period of time. As you know, Pat was acting. So acting gives you greater flexibility. Easier to do things. That’s the way it is. It’s too bad.”
Trump has notably shown little concern about domestic violence allegations in the past. In addition to being accused of sexual assault and predation by multiple women himself — including his ex-wife, Ivana Trump — in 2018, two different staffers resigned from the White House in a matter of 24 hours after accusations of domestic abuse became public. Both staff secretary Rob Porter and speechwriter David Sorensen were already serving in their roles while their background checks were still ongoing.
Trump at the time sympathized with the men, claiming that their lives were being “shattered and destroyed” by “a mere allegation.”
Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused – life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 10, 2018
The administration has also fallen short when it comes to the vetting it does when conducting background checks. A whistleblower revealed earlier this year that the White House had overturned dozens of security clearance denials, an unprecedented violation of national security standards. The administration has also blocked attempts by the House Oversight Committee to investigate the handling of these clearances by refusing to comply with its subpoenas.
In this particular case, the vetting process appears to have impacted the outcome of Shanahan’s nomination appropriately. But the fact that the concerns were not flagged previously — especially when officials allegedly knew about them long ago — speaks to the more troubling way in which Trump wants to wield his time in office.