Acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has withdrawn from consideration to head the US military, President Donald Trump said on Tuesday, stoking uncertainty about the leadership of the Pentagon at a moment of rising tension with Iran.
Trump said the Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, will be named as the new acting defence secretary. Esper had been considered a leading contender for the job if Shanahan was ultimately not confirmed.
But the decision, which Trump said owed to Shanahan’s desire to spend more time with his family, promises to prolong what has already been the longest period without a confirmed secretary of defense.
Trump’s critics had already questioned whether Shanahan, without Senate confirmation, had the power to stand up to Trump if he had a difference of opinion on military strategy.
The former Boeing executive did not have prior experience in national security matters before he was picked by then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis to be his deputy.
Shanahan had been in the job, in an acting capacity, since Mattis stepped down at the end of 2018 following disputes with the president that included Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria.
Trump’s announcement of Shanahan’s decision came shortly after USA Today newspaper reported that the FBI had been examining a nine-year-old domestic dispute involving Shanahan and his then-wife as part of a background check for the job as Pentagon chief.
The newspaper reported that Shanahan said he “never laid a hand on” his former wife. But USA Today reported that both he and his wife had claimed they had been punched by the other.
Shanahan said later on Tuesday that he was stepping down to avoid a “painful” family situation that would hurt his children and reopen “wounds we have worked years to heal”.
“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,” Shanahan said in a statement. “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. Ultimately, their safety and well-being is my highest priority.”
He provided no other details.
But as a result of that situation, Shanahan said, he asked to be withdrawn from the nomination process and he resigned from his previous post as deputy defence secretary. He said he would work on an “appropriate transition” but it was unclear how quickly he will leave the job.
Tuesday’s announcement came shortly after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters that the United States would maintain its pressure campaign on Iran and continue to deter aggression in the Gulf region, but does not want the conflict with Tehran to escalate.
Fears of a confrontation between Iran and the US have grown since Washington blamed longtime foe Iran for last week’s suspected attacks on two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz shipping lane.
On Monday, the US military released new images it said showed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) removing an unexploded mine from a Japanese-owned tanker following the suspected attacks.
Washington blamed Iran for a similar attack on May 12 off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.
Iran has vehemently denied any involvement, hinting that the US may have carried out the latest suspected attack in order to apply extra pressure on Tehran on top of the crippling sanctions it reimposed over the past year.
Washington has tightened sanctions on Tehran and moved to cut its oil production to zero in the year since it exited a key multilateral accord between Iran and world powers.
The deal offered Iran relief from global sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.
The United Nations, European Union and several allies of the US and Iran have urged both sides to show restraint, with the UN warning that the world cannot afford a “major confrontation in the Gulf”.
Meanwhile, the US also announced on Monday that it was sending 1,000 additional troops to the Middle East for “defensive purposes”.
US politicians on Tuesday voiced concern that the US Department of Defense lacks a Senate-confirmed leader.
Trump said later in the day that he would likely nominate Esper for the position, but the US president did not elaborate on with any appointment may happen.
“This is a very difficult time with everything going on in Iran and all the provocations and counter actions. And to have no secretary of defense at this time is appalling. And it shows the chaos in this administration,” Senator Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, told reporters at the US Capitol.
“I do think we are better off by far to have a Secretary of Defense who is actually confirmed by the Senate,” Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican leader in the Senate, added.
McConnell offered support for the Trump administration’s handling of tensions with Iran. The administration is “certainly not trying to start a war with Iran”, McConnell said, but is prepared to “engage in measured response” to direct actions by Iran or its surrogates in the region.
McConnell welcomed Secretary of the Army Mark Esper as a “good choice” for acting secretary. “We all know him,” McConnell said.