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Reports of domestic violence prompt Shanahan to step down

Another personnel disruption is rocking the White House, as Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan withdrew from consideration for the permanent role Tuesday amid reports of domestic violence in his past. The Washington Post’s Aaron Davis spoke with Shanahan about the allegations. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss, and Judy gets reaction to the news from Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan withdrew himself from consideration for that job on a permanent basis and resigned as deputy secretary of defense today.

    He did so as both The Washington Post and USA Today reported allegations of significant violence within Shanahan's family early this decade, incidents that he sought to keep private. In one instance, Shanahan's now ex-wife was arrested for hitting him.

    But in 911 audio obtained by USA Today, the former Kimberley Shanahan said it was her husband beating her.

  • Kimberley Jordinson:

    My husband is throwing punches at me. He's trying to leave in a Lexus. And he's…

  • 911 Operator:

    Did he hit you? Do you need a medic?

  • Kimberley Jordinson:

    Yes. He's been hitting me.

  • 911 Operator:

    Do you need a medic?

  • Kimberley Jordinson:

    I don't need a medic. I just need — I need you guys to get him out of the house.

  • 911 Operator:

    OK.

  • Kimberley Jordinson:

    He's just swinging punches at me, and he's telling — he's laughing at me, going, "You are a joke."

    And he's swinging punches at me because I can't defend myself. This is not the first time I have called the police on him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That was from a 911 call.

    And in another, more violent incident in 2011, Shanahan's then-17-year-old son beat his mother with a baseball bat, leaving her unconscious with a fractured skull in a pool of blood. Patrick Shanahan then sought to manage the young man's surrender to police on felony charges. Shanahan had served in an acting capacity at the Pentagon since the end of last year, when Secretary James Mattis resigned.

    Late this afternoon, President Trump spoke at the White House.

  • Donald Trump:

    I didn't ask him to withdraw. He presented me with a letter this morning. That was his decision.

    We have a great vetting process, but this is something that came up a little bit over the last short period of time. And, as you know, Pat was acting, and so acting gives you much greater flexibility. A lot easier to do things. So that's the way it is. Too bad.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In a statement today, Shanahan said it was — quote — "unfortunate that a painful and deeply personal family incident was dredged up." He also said that he never laid hands on his wife.

    Aaron Davis is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. And in a series of conversations over the last 24 hours, he spoke with Patrick Shanahan about the domestic violence that led to his withdrawal.

    Aaron Davis joins us now.

    And welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Quite a story. What is the sum of what had happened in those two incidents? And were those the only two over the course of this turbulent marriage?

  • Aaron Davis:

    No, this is a very long, involved divorce file and custody battle. It goes on for 1500 pages.

    And there are numerous episodes, these being certainly the two kind of keystone moments. No one looks good in this story. No one looks good in this file. There are pieces of paper and statements that the ex-wife, that Patrick, that the kids have all said things that I'm sure that they regret.

    But it was a situation where I think, for a long time, they thought that maybe they could keep this from becoming a public story, that this was a private matter. And I think it became clear to Patrick Shanahan in the last couple days that he was going to have to address this publicly, that this was going to be something that was likely going to be a televised discussion.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so was willing to talk and prepared to talk to a news reporter.

    As I just said, Aaron Davis, Patrick Shanahan is saying he — quote — "never laid a hand" on his wife.

    What information do you have about that?

  • Aaron Davis:

    On that count, we do have his word and her word. And she says that he punched her in the stomach. He says that, "I never laid a hand on her." He said that again to me last night and again to me this morning, that, never, absolutely not.

    There's a — this particular episode in 2010, he describes this, he's laying in bed sleeping or close to it, and she comes in and punches him in the face. He's seeing stars, but doesn't react. And — but they kind of know each other. It seems they know each other's buttons. He lays there pretending not to react. She starts throwing clothes out the window, tries to set them on fire.

    There's another physical confrontation outside. I mean, these are messy, horrible situations all the way through.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then next — the following year, his children have, as you reported, moved in with the former wife, another part of the country.

  • Aaron Davis:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then the son, the 17-year-old son, and the wife get into an argument. And the son ends up, as we described, beating his mother with a baseball bat.

    Patrick Shanahan arrives in town soon after that, but doesn't help get his son into the police for questioning.

  • Aaron Davis:

    There's a lot going on in this Florida part of the story.

    We started looking at this, because of that, this four-day time period. He flies to Florida in the dark of night when he gets a call from his son, who's leaving the scene of the crime. He gets down there. And there's this next four-day period in which he doesn't turn his son over to police.

    There's an active police search going on for his son. He says he's unaware of that for the first several days, calls an attorney, but holes up in a hotel. His wife is — the ex-wife accuses him of hiding the son at that point in time.

    We looked at that time, the four-day period. It was over the Thanksgiving holiday. There's a lot of things going on. It's hard to — the prosecutors, the judges, nobody that we talked to purposefully said that he was going over the time that he should have taken him to turn him in. But that's a big part of it.

    And then, secondly, when he's down there, he starts writing a memo. And he starts writing about, when my son goes before the judge, this should be considered self-defense.

    And I think this was an important part of all this, that — in the opening lines of this memo, he says, while the use of a baseball bat may be viewed as an imbalance of force, she was harassing him for three hours.

    And it's that equivalency between a verbal assault and a physical assault that I think he was going to have to reckon with.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just in our few seconds that we have left, Aaron Davis, what are the main question or questions that you have coming out of this that are still not answered?

  • Aaron Davis:

    Well, how does an acting secretary defense have this sitting in an open court file, that — did the administration not look at it?

    We know that, months ago, we briefed them on some of these very issues, and so the White House knew about this months ago.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Months ago?

  • Aaron Davis:

    Months ago.

    And then, second to that, this was something that the acting secretary was clearly trying to keep from becoming public. If this was not brought out — I mean, here, you had a very sensitive topic that he did not want to come out. It was potentially an issue for blackmail for the secretary of defense.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very, very difficult topic.

    Aaron Davis, with The Washington Post, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

    And joining me now to talk about the political fallout from this are Capitol Hill correspondent Lisa Desjardins and our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor, who joins us from a Trump campaign rally, which is taking place tonight in Orlando, Florida.

    So we have just been talking about these allegations.

    Yamiche, from your reporting, did the White House know about this months ago? And if so, what did they do about it?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, the president says he learned about these domestic violence allegations against acting Secretary Shanahan yesterday.

    But I'm told that it could be unclear and that the White House might have known even longer than that. That being said, once the president knew about these domestic violence allegations, he continued to support Shanahan. He didn't see any of these allegations as disqualifying.

    I'm told that the president was ready to fight for this nomination, that he was ready to go all the way through, as he did with Brett Kavanaugh, of course, now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

    But, in this case, Shanahan went to the White House and told the president he didn't want to be a distraction. The president said he understood that and accepted his withdrawing the nomination.

    The president is now excited to nominate Mark Esper. So the president essentially is moving on and hoping that Shanahan takes some time with his family.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yamiche there competing with the crowd noise.

    Yamiche, we know that this follows the White House firing of Rob Porter, who was the White House staff secretary. This was in the wake of disclosures about domestic violence in his background, raising questions on the part of some about whether this White House is either doing enough to vet the people they nominate or whether they are willing to put forward people who have questionable behaviors and actions in their past.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Judy, it's a key question.

    And that was the question I put to a White House aide today. I said, what do you say to people who say this White House is supporting men who are accused of domestic violence, including Rob Porter?

    That person said it would be ridiculous to link Rob Porter and acting Secretary Shanahan. That person said, because Rob Porter left the White House last year, it's unfair to do that.

    The president also has said in the past, because he feels like he was falsely accused of sexual battery and sexual assault, that he understands that sometimes men are falsely accused.

    So the White House is essentially saying, look, these are people that were accused, but we still stand with them. The president has said he supports Rob Porter. He's never backed away from that. Rob Porter resigned. But the president has been consistent with, even if you have some sort of violence allegation against you, he's ready to go to bat for you, mainly because he personally feels like that's what's happening to him.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So let me turn to Lisa now.

    Lisa, you have been talking to a lot of members of Congress. What are they saying about all this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    First of all, a handful of senators did know about these allegations, Judy, for some time.

    Senator Lindsey Graham, chairman now of Judiciary, formerly of Armed Services, said he'd heard these rumors for a while, he hadn't had it corroborated.

    But the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, James Inhofe, told me and other reporters that he did know about these allegations for some time. He was sort of waiting to see what else he got on them.

    There was universal reaction among senators that they do like the choice potentially of Mike (sic) Esper, the current Army secretary. He's someone who has — sort of gained a lot of confidence from members. It's the opposite of how Shanahan came into the Senate.

    There were a lot of doubts about Shanahan, particularly from Armed Services Chairman Inhofe, who had — asked, what's your problem with him? How do you think — would you describe him with humility? Inhofe publicly said, no, he didn't see Shanahan as someone with humility.

    He eventually has gotten on board the Shanahan nomination. But here's the awkward position they are in, Judy. Today, Inhofe was asked, are you — is the Shanahan nomination moving forward? He said yes to a reporter. Three minutes later, the president called him and said, it's off.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    These things turning so quickly.

    And just quickly, Lisa, what are they saying about the White House vetting process?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    There are a lot of questions about the White House and the FBI's role, as well as what information has or would have gone to Congress. And also, Judy, there are questions about the difficulties for the military here.

    The president may say that the position of acting gives him flexibility. But for senators , including Inhofe, they say acting actually erodes authority in the military, and that no acting secretary is seen overseas as someone in charge.

    We have now been without a full secretary for more than six months. They say that is a problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins, Yamiche Alcindor, we thank you both.

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