WASHINGTON — As the United States faces the longest period in its history without a confirmed secretary of defense, and tensions build over American allegations that Iran is responsible for recent attacks on civilian ships in the Persian Gulf, the man slated to head the Pentagon is facing a protracted FBI investigation that has delayed his Senate hearing until at least next month.
Despite announcing more than a month ago acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan as his pick to get the Pentagon job on a permanent basis, President Trump has yet to formally nominate Shanahan, forcing the Senate Armed Services Committee to postpone a confirmation hearing it had tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, June 18.
Senators were told that the postponement was because the committee had yet to receive documents from the FBI’s background check, according to a staffer for a committee member.
With Shanahan’s confirmation on hold, press reports have questioned his relationship with the president, and the Pentagon has been fielding press queries about his personal life, including a messy divorce that involved an accusation of domestic violence from his ex-wife, who was arrested as part of the dispute. Shanahan did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. The Pentagon referred questions to a spokesperson for Shanahan who emphasized the personal nature of the allegations.
“Before his divorce, Pat Shanahan’s ex-wife was arrested and charged for domestic violence. Shanahan asked for the charges to be dropped for the sake of his family and asks that this remain a private matter,” the spokesperson for Shanahan said.
President Trump first announced Shanahan as his pick to lead the Defense Department on May 9. The move appeared set to fill a void left after former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis abruptly resigned late last year. Shanahan, who was the deputy secretary, has been leading the Pentagon in an acting capacity since Mattis’s departure.
However, since Shanahan was announced as Trump’s next pick for the Cabinet post, his nomination has not been officially submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would be responsible for conducting his confirmation hearings. Multiple sources confirmed to Yahoo News that Shanahan’s nomination has been expected for weeks and a hearing was tentatively scheduled for June 18. That date was canceled, and a hearing for his nomination is now set for July 11.
“It had been tentatively scheduled for Tuesday for a few weeks,” the staffer for the committee member said. “They just pushed it back to July 11.”
Leacy Burke, a spokeswoman for Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., noted hearings for Shanahan have never been formally scheduled because the Senate has not officially received his nomination.
“There were internal dates discussed,” Burke said. “We could never get something tentatively scheduled because we never got the nomination.”
Burke referred further questions about the delay to the White House.
A White House official referred questions about the status of Shanahan’s background check to the FBI, which declined to comment.
The road to confirmation as defense secretary was initially thought to be a smooth one for Shanahan, a former Boeing executive. He had a relatively difficult time being confirmed as deputy because Democrats on the Armed Services Committee and its former chairman, the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest.
Trump announced Shanahan as his pick to lead the Defense Department only after an ethics probe conducted by the Pentagon’s inspector general cleared him of allegations he gave Boeing favorable treatment by disparaging the way the company’s rival, Lockheed Martin, handled the F-35 fighter jet program. Following Trump’s announcement, Inhofe, who took over the committee following McCain’s death last year, indicated he would support Shanahan’s nomination.
But the White House has still not sent Shanahan’s nomination to the committee. The delay has raised questions among Pentagon watchers, and a lobbyist who works on military issues told Yahoo News that Shanahan’s status has attracted notice.
“It’s everywhere, it is like ... why the hell isn’t Shanahan being confirmed? It’s everything,” the lobbyist said. “The military-industrial complex can’t get slowed down and this is slowing it down.”
The lack of a permanent secretary of defense is particularly troubling to some observers as tensions mount between the U.S. and Iran. Last month Wesley Hallman, senior vice president at the National Defense Industrial Association, told Yahoo News that Shanahan’s uncertain status likely prevented him from forcefully joining with others in the Pentagon who opposed the White House’s decision to label Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization because he was “still interviewing for the job.”
Shanahan’s stalled confirmation has also prompted rumors that Trump may be having second thoughts about tapping him to lead the Defense Department. On June 11, NBC News reported Trump “asked several confidants” about “alternative candidates” for the position earlier this month.
Asked last week whether Trump is second-guessing the decision to make Shanahan Pentagon chief, the White House pointed to comments the president made on June 11 where he suggested the nomination was set but Shanahan “has to go through the process,” an apparent reference to the FBI check.
But the formal submission of the nomination to the Senate is required for Shanahan to be confirmed as secretary of defense.
One of the issues that could be holding up the FBI investigation is his complicated divorce. Shanahan’s separation was extremely contentious and included his then wife Kimberly’s allegation that Shanahan hit her during a violent confrontation in 2010. She noted the police were called and she was arrested for assaulting Shanahan when they arrived. Shanahan was not charged with any crime related to the incident. Kimberly also accused Shanahan of having been involved in “barroom brawls” in his past. She did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
While Shanahan was not arrested or charged in connection with the fight, the now ex-wife’s various allegations could have complicated his confirmation process. High-level FBI background checks typically would require detailed review of any accusations of violent behavior or heavy drinking.
Another Senate staffer said they were aware of speculation about Shanahan’s personal life delaying the FBI check — saying “reporters have been chasing” stories involving Shanahan’s personal life — but there has been no confirmation that the divorce or related allegations are the reason.
“It was announced six weeks ago and we still don’t have paper yet, so yeah, people are wondering but I’ve not heard any solid reason,” the staffer said. “I mean, there’s speculation and rumor out there that I’m not going to peddle, but at the end of the day it’s up to the president to put his signature on the nomination and send it here, and God knows why that hasn’t happened.”
Even if the allegations don’t sink Shanahan’s background check, they could complicate his standing with Trump. It’s not clear whether the president is aware of the accusations made by Shanahan’s ex-wife, but two other men who faced domestic violence allegations lost high-level positions in the Trump administration. Former White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned after being accused of abuse by both of his former wives, and Andy Puzder, who Trump nominated as secretary of labor in 2016, withdrew himself from consideration after multiple controversies, including allegations of domestic violence from his divorce.
Additional reporting contributed by Casey Coombs and Sean D. Naylor.
Updated, 7:50 p.m.: This story was updated with a statement from Shanahan’s spokesperson.
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