White House to Nominate Esper as Defense Secretary as Shanahan Departs

Outgoing Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan departs the Pentagon in a "clap out" ceremony, ??June 21, 2019. DOD photo by Lisa Ferdinando.

The White House on June 21 announced the intent to officially nominate Army Secretary Mark Esper to be the next Defense Secretary, hours after former acting Defense Secretary and expected nominee Patrick Shanahan was ceremoniously walked out of the building.

Shanahan on June 19 announced he was stepping down from the acting position and withdrawing from consideration to be the Pentagon boss, saying he wanted to spend time with his family as reports of a tumultuous divorce and personal life emerged.

“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,” Shanahan said in a statement. “Ultimately, their safety and well-being is my highest priority.”

Shanahan left the building? June 19, with his tenure officially ending the night of June 23.

President Donald Trump announced the move in a June 19 tweet, adding he was going to nominate Esper to be acting Secretary. Esper will take that role June 24.

The White House on June 21 said Trump will nominate Esper to take the role permanently, and it also will nominate David Norquist, who is currently performing the role of the deputy defense secretary, to take that job permanently.

The process will be more complicated this time around because of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998. Under the law, a nominee cannot serve in the position he is nominated for in an acting capacity, so Esper will have to step aside while the confirmation process progresses. The law did not affect Shanahan because the “first assistant” to a position is automatically made acting when that position is vacant, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report on the law. Shanahan previously served as the deputy secretary.

In addition to the Esper and Norquist nominations, Trump will also nominate Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy to take Esper’s position at the top of that service. Trump announced last month via Twitter his intentions to nominate Barbara Barrett, former chairwoman of The Aerospace Corporation’s board of trustees and a past Federal Aviation Administration deputy administrator, to be the Air Force’s next Secretary. Matthew Donovan assumed the role of acting Secretary on June 1 following Heather Wilson’s departure to lead the University of Texas at El Paso. However, Barrett has not yet been officially nominated.

Esper’s first major event in office begins June 25, as he heads to Brussels for NATO defense ministerial meetings. He’s taking over the Pentagon as it also faces increasing tensions with Iran following last week’s shoot down of a US Navy RQ-4 and Trump reportedly calling off of US military strikes on that country.