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Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan Withdraws His Nomination For Permanent Post


President Trump is losing his second defense secretary in less than six months. Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan has been filling the role since Jim Mattis resigned over policy differences with the president late last year. Trump had tweeted his intention to nominate Shanahan for the job, but he never actually did. And today Shanahan withdrew from consideration and resigned. Later in the day, Trump said that Army Secretary Mark Esper would take his place.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to sort it out. And Tom, just to start, what led to the acting secretary, Patrick Shanahan, to quit?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Audie, it turned on something of a personal nature that happened nine years ago that - during his marriage and apparently missed in the background checks. Shanahan and his wife Kimberly got into a bitter argument outside their house in Seattle according to police records first reported by USA Today. She called the police and claimed he punched her in the stomach. He denied it. And when police arrived, they found him with a bloody nose, scratches on his face. Authorities charged his wife with domestic violence. The charges were later dropped for lack of evidence, and he soon filed for divorce.

Now, in a statement, Shanahan said he didn't want what he called a deeply personal family situation dredged up. He didn't want his three children to relive what he called a traumatic chapter during this confirmation process.

CORNISH: Can you talk about what Shanahan's relationship was like with the president?

BOWMAN: You know, he really didn't have much of a relationship, certainly nothing like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had early on or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has today. And there was often talk that Trump was looking for someone to replace Shanahan, but no outsider really wanted the job.

And at the Pentagon, Shanahan was not really a force to be reckoned with. He had no real experience in defense or military matters. He was not well-versed on policy issues, and he seemed more comfortable when you would talk about maybe weapons programs, aircraft programs. After all, he was an engineer at Boeing for most of his adult life. And on policy issues, oftentimes on the Hill he would turn to Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford to answer questions. And also, he didn't have a lot of support on Capitol Hill. Some were concerned about his corporate ties to Boeing. Others worried he would be just a yes man for Trump.

CORNISH: Now the president is saying that Army Secretary Mark Esper will take the job as acting secretary for now. The president has hasn't said if he will nominate him to be the permanent secretary. So what do we know about Esper?

BOWMAN: Well, Esper does have a military and Washington experience. He's a 1986 West Point graduate - interestingly, the same class as Secretary Pompeo. He served in the first Gulf War, later worked on Capitol Hill and then for defense contractor Raytheon. And he's been cutting a lot of Army programs to switch to future needs - long-range artillery, electronic warfare, cyber. He's also been focusing on things like problems with Army housing - decrepit, moldy housing that was a huge scandal in the spring. And Esper said he was sorry to soldiers and their wives. Let's listen.


MARK ESPER: I just apologize that you guys had to go through this for this long - right? - you and all the other families. So now our challenge is get it fixed for the entire organization, you know, make sure this doesn't happen again. And a big part of that is the Army staying on top of it.

BOWMAN: But becoming defense secretary, of course Esper will have a lot more on his plate, basically everything.

CORNISH: Do you know what kind of defense secretary he might be policy-wise?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know. It's a big question - a big, open question because he's only been dealing really with Army programs. But one question is, will he be like Shanahan, kind of taking a rear seat to Secretary Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, who are really throwing their weight around and seem to be running policy? And policy's not coming from the Pentagon. It's being run from the White House or the State Department.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.