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On Tuesday, President Trump announced that Patrick Shanahan, a retired Boeing executive and the current acting secretary of defense, was withdrawing his nomination to take on the role in an official capacity. As the president told reporters, Shanahan was withdrawing in order to “take some time off for family matters.” This was something of a euphemism, and a familiar one. As a Washington Post investigation had revealed just prior to the announcement, the “family matters” Shanahan needed to attend to were considerably darker than the president suggested: namely, two violent domestic incidents that had been uncovered by the FBI though reportedly concealed from lawmakers.

“I didn’t ask him to withdraw. He walked in this morning,” Trump
told reporters on the White House lawn late Tuesday afternoon. “We have a very good vetting process,” he added.

Until his resignation, Shanahan had been the longest-serving acting defense secretary. Confirmed in a temporary capacity in late 2017, he was nominated to fill James Mattis’s former position—the highest civilian position in the Pentagon—in March of 2019. Shanahan’s domestic history was apparently not mentioned in his 2017 confirmation hearing, either.

This has become a pattern: Last year, White House Chief Strategist Rob Porter resigned following multiple allegations of spousal abuse. (Prior to his resignation, the administration fought hard to keep him in place, defending him as a good man even as both of Porter’s ex-wives described a history of violent abuse.) Andrew Puzder withdrew his nomination for secretary of labor after a video of his ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, appearing on a ‘90s episode of Oprah called “High Class Battered Wives” surfaced. Clearly, the “vetting” process isn’t working.

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In one incident, first reported by the Washington Post and USA Today, Shannahan and his wife—now divorced—were accused of punching each other during a domestic dispute. His ex-wife was arrested, though both charges were eventually dropped. (The now-former nominee for secretary of defense denies he assaulted her.)

In another incident, Shanahan allegedly protected his son after he repeatedly hit his mother with a baseball bat.

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From the Post:

In November 2011, Shanahan rushed to defend his then-17-year-old son, William Shanahan, in the days after the teenager brutally beat his mother. The attack had left Shanahan’s ex-wife unconscious in a pool of blood, her skull fractured, and with internal injuries that required surgery, according to court and police records.

Two weeks later, Shanahan sent his ex-wife’s brother a memo arguing that his son had acted in self-defense.

“Use of a baseball bat in self-defense will likely be viewed as an imbalance of force,” Shanahan wrote. “However, Will’s mother harassed him for nearly three hours before the incident.”

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After the incident, Shanahan’s son allegedly unplugged the phone so other family members couldn’t call 911. Shanahan, according to divorce records viewed by the Post, immediately flew to Florida and holed up with son in a hotel room before assembling a defense team to help keep his son out of jail.

According to audio of the son’s court date, the defense took a familiar tone, describing a good boy with a bright future at stake:

“He’s a college baseball prospect. He has dreams. He has a future. His father is an executive of Boeing,” Byrd said, according to an audio recording that the court released to The Post. “If he has to sit in jail for 21 days, not only is that going to traumatize him, he’s not going to finish the semester, probably get kicked off the baseball team . . . everything is going to be over for him.”

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Eventually, the son was sentenced to 18 months at a Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch, as well as an additional four years of probation. (Both punishments were eventually reduced.)

Shanahan has repeatedly said the release of this information has been devastating to his family, in particular his son. From a public statement on Tuesday afternoon:

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 wound we have worked years to heal. Ultimately, their safety and well-being is my highest priority.

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In an interview on Monday with the Post ahead of the investigation’s release, Shanahan apologized for the incident with his son: “I don’t believe violence is appropriate ever, and certainly never any justification for attacking someone with a baseball bat.”

Until this public disclosure, Shanahan appears to have held close to his own version of events: a loving father coming to the rescue of a son who simply got carried away in a dispute with a “harassing” mother. That was the story he told his family, and the story he told himself. Clearly, the person, or persons, who ultimately decided not to share the details of this violent history with
lawmakers were equally persuaded.