WASHINGTON — As he underwent confirmation for the Pentagon’s second highest position in 2017, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told lawmakers that he was “aware of no incidents reflecting adversely” on his ability to do his job and had “never been party to any civil litigation.”
But at the time, he had only recently emerged from a contentious, years-long divorce, which is a civil court matter. His ex-wife had accused him in divorce filings and police records of punching her during a violent 2010 domestic battle.
Shanahan has denied striking her and accused her of being the aggressor, saying she punched him.
Shanahan said Thursday in a statement to USA TODAY that he “complied fully” with an FBI background check prior to his confirmation as deputy secretary. As part of the process, he submitted a June 2017 letter to Sen. John McCain, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that addressed a variety of issues, including the questions about civil litigation and any adverse history.
“In June 2017, I did not believe that these incidents would adversely impact my ability to serve in the position of deputy secretary of Defense and I do not believe that to be the case today,” Shanahan said in the statement to USA TODAY. He will step down as acting secretary on Sunday after coming under scrutiny for the violent encounter and will be replaced by Army Secretary Mark Esper.
Shanahan’s sudden resignation as acting secretary renewed questions about the Trump administration’s process of vetting nominees for sensitive posts. President Trump said Tuesday that he had been unaware of the issues in Shanahan’s background until the previous day but defended the handling of his nomination.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and an Armed Services Committee member, said questions about the 2017 letter from Shanahan to the committee “ought to be considered seriously as part of an evaluation of the overall vetting process, which failed so clearly in Shanahan’s case and many other nominees reviewed by the White House.
“I’m still considering the best route, but I will be pushing for strong, effective and permanent secretary of Defense to investigate this.”
A spokeswoman for Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Sarah Peck, said he was “deeply troubled” by the allegations by Shanahan’s former wife and “believes (the committee) should have been made aware of them before the 2017 vote.”
Blumenthal and Kaine were among Senate Democrats who voted en masse for Shanahan, who was confirmed 92-7.
Trump announced Tuesday that Shanahan had resigned and had withdrawn from consideration to be his permanent Defense chief, throwing the top ranks of the military into transition as it prepared for a possible confrontation with Iran. The move came about an hour after USA TODAY revealed that the FBI had been examining the violent fight between Shanahan and his then-wife, who now goes by the name Kimberley Jordinson,
More: FBI examining 2010 domestic fight involving acting defense secretary Shanahan; accounts differ on aggressor
The episode came as a surprise to lawmakers and staff members on the Armed Services Committee, who said they were concerned that Shanahan failed to fully advise them of an issue they said could be relevant to his leadership of the military both when Trump nominated him to be acting Defense chief in 2017 and this year when Trump announced he would nominate Shanahan to be his permanent Defense secretary.
Trump replaces him: Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan says he will resign after scrutiny over 2010 domestic fight
Shanahan is the latest in a string of Trump administration nominees and almost-nominees to withdraw from consideration for top government posts. More than sixty of Trump’s nominees have done so in less than three years, nearly double the number at the same point in President Barack Obama’s administration.
Shanahan said he stepped down because he didn’t not want to be a distraction. He also raised concerns about his children having to re-live an ordeal from their past.
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Brouilette at the Pentagon on Feb. 2, 2018. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP)
Differing accounts of that night
Shanahan has said he never laid a hand on his ex-wife, including when they engaged in the late-night 2010 argument that spilled from the bedroom of their Seattle home to the front yard. The encounter left him with a bloody nose and hand, and her with bloodstains – possibly from offensive action – on her forearm.
Jordinson maintained that Shanahan punched her as the two struggled over a briefcase, an allegation she repeated to Seattle police, in a later divorce filing and in an interview with USA TODAY in May. Jordinson said two FBI agents questioned her about the episode in early June. Shanahan told police at the time that she was the aggressor and punched him “10 or 20 times.”
Police arrested Jordinson after the 2010 altercation on suspicion of domestic assault, though prosecutors later dropped the charge citing a lack of evidence.
The 2017 letter to McCain, who was a Republican from Arizona, was sent during a background review by the committee. The review included professional, financial and personal information required of all nominees.
“I have never been a party to any civil litigation,” Shanahan wrote. “I am aware of no incidents reflecting adversely upon my suitability to serve in the position for which I have been nominated.”
Attorney Mark Zaid, who specializes in national security matters, said he wouldn’t have advised one of his clients to write such a letter.
“There’s no way you can say you’ve been accused of horrible things, domestic abuse, even if it’s not true,” said Zaid, who has represented USA TODAY in a lawsuit seeking access to federal records. “How do you not say there’s a suitability issue?
“This was something that he could have turned into a favorable aspect in support of his nomination, the sensitivity he has, and understanding what it’s like to be a victim and have a family problem. But to deny that it’s a suitability issue is just wrong.”
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Career ‘solving problems’
Shanahan had come to government from Boeing, where he spent more than three decades, rising to senior vice president and helping oversee the aviation giant’s vast manufacturing operations.
During Shanahan’s 2017 confirmation hearing, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced the nominee to the Armed Services Committee, lauding a long career “solving problems no one else can solve.”
“I am confident that he will be an effective leader in this position for our country,” Cantwell told the panel.
Earlier this week, however, Cantwell’s spokesman said the senator, like many of her colleagues, was not aware of the domestic violence questions in Shanahan’s background.
“No, she did not know,” spokesman Bryan Watt said.
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