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Esper takes over Defense as another Trump appointee exits

Updated June 18, 2019 - 4:02 pm

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced Tuesday on Twitter that Army Secretary Mark Esper would be his latest pick for acting defense secretary, after the incumbent announced he was stepping down.

The news came as the Pentagon is deploying an additional 1,000 troops to the Middle East as tensions rise with Iran.

Once again, all eyes were on the spectacularly brutal fall of an unconventional Trump appointee drawn into the federal bureaucracy from the private sector.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan explained in a statement to USA Today that he had decided to withdraw himself from consideration after a lengthy FBI background investigation into a 2010 domestic violence incident that resulted in the arrest of Shanahan’s then-wife. Shanahan said he dropped the charges; his ex-wife has denied she assaulted Shanahan.

Then there was a domestic violence conviction against Shanahan’s son. During two days of interviews with the Washington Post, Shanahan spoke of his then-17-year-old son’s violent assault on his mother with a baseball bat.

“Our story is not dissimilar to those of the many families facing the difficult challenges that come when a loved one struggles with substance abuse and other emotional issues as is the case with my former wife,” Shanahan wrote.

In and out with a tweet

Shanahan leaves his position much as he entered it, with a tweet from the commander-in-chief.

In December, Trump tweeted that Shanahan, who spent decades working his way up the ladder at Boeing before he became deputy secretary of defense in July 2017, would replace outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis.

Mattis resigned in protest of Trump’s announcement that he would pull U.S. troops out of Syria. Mattis offered to stay on the job for two more months to give Trump time to find a replacement. Instead, Trump pushed Mattis out the door early when he tweeted that he had chosen Shahahan to take over as of Jan. 1.

Then Trump stalled Shanahan’s nomination until May. Shanahan had been vetted by the FBI before his confirmation as a deputy secretary — which gave casual observers reason to believe his confirmation for the top slot would not be problematic.

But Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island told USA Today that he was “not fully aware of the 2010 incident.”

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, who has been tracking Trump turnover for the Brookings Institution, believes the FBI might set a higher bar for a position that puts the holder sixth in line to succeed a president, after the vice president, House speaker, Senate president pro tem, secretary of state and secretary of the treasury.

Lots of turnover

Tenpas has documented an exceedingly high rate of turnover in the Trump administration — with 69 percent of Trump’s top 65 having positions vacated due to resignations or firings. As of last week, one third of those positions had undergone “serial turnover.” Trump has burned through three chiefs of staff and national security advisers, four directors of communications and is on his fifth deputy national security adviser.

Two successive acting defense secretaries are “unusual,” said Tenpas, who wonders if Trump likes to audition potential members of his top team. Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has run the White House since December without a permanent title.

Tuesday afternoon as Trump was headed for Marine One en route to Orlando to announce his re-election campaign, Trump told reporters that Shanahan “was ‘acting.’ ‘Acting’ gives you much greater flexibility.”

At the same time, Trump indicated it was “most likely” that he would send nominate Esper, a West Point graduate who served in the Army for more than a decade and later became a lobbyist for Raytheon.

Earlier this month, Andrew Witherspoon of Axios added up the cumulative days that cabinet-level positions were vacant through June 6 of a president’s third year in office. Trump’s total was 1,367 days. The sum for all five of his most recent predecessors — Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Ronald Reagan — was 846 days.

“We are in a very aggressive posture in two parts of the world,” noted Reno’s Ty Cobb, a foreign policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan, in a reference to Iran and China.

“You don’t go through a prolonged confirmation,” Cobb added.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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