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Tim Kaine on Shanahan allegations, Mark Esper and tensions with Iran

President Trump announced Tuesday that Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan will not seek confirmation for the permanent version of the role. Reports then surfaced about possible incidents of domestic violence in Shanahan’s past. Judy Woodruff talks to Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., about the “troubling” allegations, why not having a permanent Secretary of Defense is risky and tensions with Iran.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia serves on the Armed Services Committee, which holds confirmation hearings for secretaries of defense.

    I spoke to Senator Kaine earlier to get his reaction to today's news, and that, until today, President Trump was willing to stick with Patrick Shanahan.

  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:

    Well, Judy, here's the — here's a real serious problem.

    We have not had a confirmed secretary of defense since the end of 2018. We're living in a very challenging time right now. The president announced his intention to nominate Secretary Shanahan, and he made them — he made him an acting secretary, but, up until this morning, we still didn't actually have the nomination.

    The nomination papers hadn't been sent over. We didn't have the FBI report, which is standard for a nominee. We were seeing press reports that the president was rethinking and maybe deciding not to nominate Secretary Shanahan.

    Today, the president said that he's going to ask Secretary of the Army Mark Esper to be the acting secretary of defense. Secretary Esper has been on the job for a long time. Doesn't the president know whether or not he would like to nominate him for the job?

    An acting is no substitute for a confirmed secretary, in terms of both the gravitas they gain within the organization once they're confirmed, and also the degree to which Congress can exercise oversight in that confirmation process.

    And it's almost like the president would rather have actings that he can kind of control, rather than have confirmed by the Senate Cabinet secretaries. That's no way to run a Defense Department.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, a lot of questions coming out of this, but one of them is, what do you make of the fact that there are these domestic incidents in Mr. Shanahan's past, and the fact that the president was sticking with him until this morning?

  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:

    It's troubling. Many of us voted for Secretary Shanahan to be in a key position in the Pentagon over acquisitions. We thought he was very qualified for that.

    I don't think anyone, when they cast that vote thought, that he would soon be suggested as the secretary of defense over the entire DOD. These are troubling allegations, but, in some way, the allegations are now kind of moved to the side because the president has announced he's not going to be nominated.

    And here we are as a nation still waiting to find out, when will we have a nominee to be secretary of defense, seven months now after Secretary Mattis stepped down?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, do you have concerns about the administration's vetting process?

  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:

    I have concerns about the vetting process.

    I will tell you, Judy, my more significant concern, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, is this tendency to be very cavalier about, well, we don't need to send you a nominee. Let's just have acting secretaries.

    That suggests to me that the White House likes to run the Defense operation politically out of the White House, John Bolton and others, and we don't care whether there's an acting actually at the Pentagon. We want to run it out of the White House.

    And we have seen a number of instances during the Trump administration where we believe the solid judgment of the military professionals at the Pentagon over matters like whether transgender folks can serve in the military, or whether we should stay in the Iran deal, the solid advice of the Pentagon professionals have been overruled by political, you know, judgment and sometimes even political hacks in the White House, who do not have the gravitas that our professionals have.

    So that is what worries me the most, because we are in a very challenging global situation right now. There's no substitute for a confirmed secretary of defense.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Something else very serious to ask you about, Senator, and that is Iran.

    What do you believe is the administration's Iran policy? The president has said he doesn't want to go to war with Iran, but he is sending 1,000 or more troops, additional troops, to the region in the wake of the attacks on the oil tankers last week.

  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:

    Judy, the president's policy has been pretty clear.

    He tore up a diplomatic deal with Iran that put a cap on their nuclear program. It wasn't Iran that walked away from diplomacy. It was the United States. And I'm not aware of another instance in our history where it was the United States that backed out of a diplomatic deal.

    His secretary of defense at the time, secretary of state at the time, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, national security adviser at the time all told the president, you should stay in this deal because it is making the region and the United States safer. Our allies said stay in the deal. The International Atomic Energy said stay in the deal.

    When you walk away from diplomacy, you raise the risk of unnecessary war. And the events that have happened since the president pulled out of a diplomatic deal are entirely predictable, military, economic, diplomatic, rhetorical provocations toward Iran that are responded in kind, and then that raises the risk of escalating violence, including military action or war, in a very dangerous region. And it's harmful to the United States' security interests.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Do you think the president does want war?

  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:

    My gut is, I think the president is more naturally an isolationist, who campaigned and told the American public that he doesn't want to be involved in more wars in the Middle East, that that's not the right thing to do.

    But the president does have people around him who have for years spoken about their desire to do regime change in Iran or even to be engaged in military action against Iran.

    And I think some of the president's advisers, frankly, buffaloed him into a position where he backed out of the Iran deal, and they are buffaloing him into a position where we could be in an unnecessary war.

    And I will make that plain: There is no reason for the United States to be in a war with Iran right now. But the president moved us down a path toward an unnecessary war when he canceled diplomacy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Tim Kaine.

    And we know you and other senators have introduced legislation to ask the president to seek congressional authorization for sending those troops to Iran.

  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:

    If he thinks we need to be in a war, he should least make that case to Congress, and let us have a debate and a vote. He shouldn't be doing this on his own.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Kaine, we thank you.

  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:

    Thanks, Judy.

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