WASHINGTON — The FBI has been examining a violent domestic dispute from nine years ago between acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan and his then-wife as part of a background investigation ahead of his possible confirmation hearing to be President Trump’s permanent defense chief.
Tuesday afternoon, Trump said he would replace Shanahan as acting secretary.
The incident, in which Shanahan and his then-wife Kimberley both claimed to the police that they had been punched by the other, did not surface when Trump nominated Shanahan to be the Pentagon’s second-in-command two years ago, or when he was selected to be the interim defense chief this year.
Shanahan said he “never laid a hand on” his former wife. His former wife, who now goes by the name Kimberley Jordinson, said she stands by her account.
The episode could have been a potential roadblock for Shanahan if Trump formally nominated him for the secretary’s post, which requires Senate confirmation, because a key lawmaker and Senate aides said it could have raised questions about his ability to combat longstanding problems of violence against women in the military. Among the concerns of Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services committee, and Senate aides: They were not fully aware of the incident when Shanahan was confirmed for the No. 2 position; and the Senate should have the opportunity to assess whether he was the aggressor or victim and how that could affect his ability to lead the armed forces.
“The question is going to be whether or not he’s credible on the issue. If he’s credible, he’ll be OK,” said Leon Panetta, who was defense secretary and CIA director during President Barack Obama’s administration. “These days nothing is out of bounds.”
Shanahan said in a statement that the episode documented in his divorce and police records “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. I wish nothing but the best for her and regret that my children’s privacy has been violated and they are being forced to relive a tragic situation that we have worked so hard as a family to put behind us.”
Asked for comment early Tuesday on the FBI review and whether it would affect Shanahan’s nomination, the White House referred questions on the incident to the Pentagon.
Diverging accounts of incident
Both Shanahan and Jordinson acknowledged in court filings and police reports that a late-night argument on Aug. 28, 2010, after both had been drinking, spilled from their bedroom to the front yard of their Seattle home. The incident escalated into a clash that police said left him with a bloodied nose and hand and her with a blood-stained forearm. But their accounts diverged on who was to blame, as well as the claim Jordinson reported to officers and later outlined in divorce papers: that Shanahan punched her in the stomach.
Shanahan denied hitting her and told police that she was the aggressor and that she had punched him “10 to 20 times,” according to police records obtained by USA TODAY. Officers – noting in part that Jordinson’s bloody forearm appeared consistent with her having attacked her husband – arrested Jordinson on suspicion of domestic violence. Prosecutors later dropped the charge, citing a lack of evidence.
The competing accounts of the fight are outlined in hundreds of pages of court files and police records, as well as police photographs, audio recordings and an interview with USA TODAY in which Shanahan’s former wife reiterated her accusations.
“Though my marriage ended in sorrow and disappointment, I never laid a hand on my then-wife and cooperated fully in a thorough law enforcement investigation that resulted in her being charged with assault against me,” Shanahan said in a prepared statement late Monday.
Acting defense secretary since January
Shanahan, 56, has been the acting defense secretary since January, the longest period the Pentagon has been led by a temporary chief. Trump said in April that he planned to make Shanahan his permanent defense secretary, putting him in command of the military’s 2 million active and reserve troops and 700,000 civilian employees. The White House has yet to formally nominate him for the job, and the delay has raised questions in political circles as to why.
Reed, the Rhode Island senator, had known that Shanahan had been involved in a contentious divorce when he was confirmed as deputy defense secretary but was unaware of the domestic violence allegations, said spokesman Chip Unruh. He said the episode could have been overlooked in an earlier background check or might have surfaced now because he is in line for a more sensitive post.
“Senator Reed is going to take that very seriously because the job of secretary is very different than the deputy spot,” Unruh said.
Two FBI agents questioned Jordinson for several hours in early June about her allegations as part of a background examination of the presumptive nominee, she said.
The FBI declined to comment. A Senate staffer with knowledge of the matter said the bureau’s inquiry into Shananan’s background was ongoing as part of the vetting process.
That renewed inquiry has come as the Pentagon is weighing its options with Iran, which the United States blames for attacks on two oil tankers this month in the Gulf of Oman. The Trump administration ordered another 1,000 troops deployed to the region Monday.
Jordinson has maintained that Shanahan struck her as the two struggled over a briefcase, an allegation she repeated that night to Seattle police, in a later divorce filing and in her recent interview with USA TODAY.
“My husband is throwing punches at me,” Jordinson told a Seattle 911 operator that night, according to a recording of the call. “He’s been hitting me. … I don’t need a medic, I need you guys to get him out of the house. … He’s just swinging punches at me.”
One of the couple’s sons, who witnessed part of the argument, later submitted a statement to his mother’s criminal lawyer recounting a physical struggle and her calling to him for help, though he said he did not see either parent strike the other.
The son, Will Shanahan, who was 15 at the time of the incident, now asserts his mother “coerced” him to sign the document meant to assist her defense, according to a statement he provided to USA TODAY. He said the initial declaration, which indicated that police had treated his mother “unfairly,” was “false, dishonest and did not represent the accurate facts.”
“I did what she told me,” he said.
Jordinson stood by her account in an interview with USA TODAY and said her son’s 2010 statement was his idea.
She also acknowledged receiving care for post-traumatic stress disorder. During her divorce, Jordinson was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, though she disputed that conclusion. And police records in her new hometown of Sarasota, Florida show officers have expressed concerns about her mental stability when responding to multiple calls from her home.
Divorce and accusations
The bitter clash between Shanahan and his wife began after an evening at a friend’s house, where both had been drinking, according to court documents. During the argument, Jordinson ordered Shanahan to leave their home and began to throw his clothes and other belongings out the front door.
Shanahan told police that night that she also attempted to light the pile of clothing on fire.
Jordinson said in a court filing in the couple’s divorce that before Shanahan left the house, he went to retrieve a briefcase from a closet near the bathroom where she was getting ready for bed.
“We have had arguments over this briefcase and its contents before,” Jordinson stated. “I did not want him to take the briefcase. I picked up the briefcase and Pat slugged me in the stomach. I stood up and he tried to hit me in the stomach twice more, but the briefcase was in the way. … Pat eventually yanked the briefcase from my hands, breaking my fingernails.”
During the struggle, according to Jordinson’s declaration in the divorce proceedings, she called out to her son, who “appeared with a baseball bat” to defend his mother. The confrontation ended, she said, after she called the police.
Officers dispatched to the family’s home in Seattle’s exclusive Laurelhurst neighborhood concluded that Jordinson, not Shanahan, was the aggressor, producing photographs of his bloodied nose, blood-stained hand and scratched chin.
While Jordinson reported being struck “several times” in the stomach, officers found no apparent injuries and noted that her description of the attack was inconsistent. In their report, police noted that no injury photos were taken of Jordinson. The report, however, indicates that Jordinson had “blood stains” on her right forearm that police suggested were consistent with offensive actions against Shanahan.
“Though she stated that she was struck in the stomach, she demonstrated she was struck on her face,” police said, adding that Jordinson “appeared to be intoxicated.” She was later arrested on a domestic assault charge. Prosecutors dropped the case the next year because of “proof problems,” though Shanahan wrote in court filings that he had asked them to do so.
Jordinson maintained her version of the account during an interview with USA TODAY in May, saying Shanahan, who police also described as intoxicated, dragged her from the couple’s home, mocked her and grabbed her wrists after he locked the briefcase in the trunk of his car. “I was like fighting … trying to get my wrists loose, and, um, he was just shaking me, saying, ‘You’re a joke! You’re a joke! You’re a joke!’ Then I got one hand loose, and that’s when he punched me … in the stomach,” she said.
Corroboration and contradiction
Two weeks after the episode, will shanahan, the couple’s oldest son, submitted the declaration in support of his mothers’s defense in the assault case.
The notarized statement also asserted that officers “omitted” parts of her account from their report.
In his statement this month to USA TODAY, Will Shanahan asserted that his mother was, in fact, the aggressor, though he said he did not see either parent strike the other.
Patrick Shanahan also denied his wife’s account in court documents and in a statement to police.
After packing his car with the clothing and other belongings tossed in the front yard, Shanahan said he went to the bathroom to gather toiletries that had been strewn across the bathroom floor by his wife, who “continued to drink.”
“I took belongings out of my closet,” he said in a court filing. “When I started to carry my briefcase and other items to the car, Kim attacked me. I did not hit her in the stomach or anywhere. I tried to exit the house to put the briefcase in the trunk of my car but she wouldn’t let go. … Kim followed me outside and then punched me repeatedly in the face. I told her to get away from me and to leave me alone.”
Shanahan told police that as his wife continued to swing at him, he did not retaliate. “I defended myself by blocking her punches with my hand,” he said.
The charges and counter charges are part of a bitter legal battle that spanned more than six years, as the couple waged an extensive fight over the care of their three children and the division of the family’s significant financial holdings.
Jordinson’s post-divorce life has not been without its troubles. In 2014, she was charged with burglary and criminal mischief in separate disputes with a former business partner. The burglary charge was subsequently dismissed, as was the criminal mischief charge after she completed a pre-trial diversion program.
In Florida, she is self-employed in property management and interior design.
Battle against domestic abuse
The military has struggled for years to deal with violence against women, including sexual harassment and assault and domestic abuse.
Last year, Congress changed military law, making domestic violence a separate crime. The move was made after a former airman, Devin Kelly, gunned down 26 people at church services in Sutherland Spring, Texas, in 2017. Kelly had been convicted of beating his wife and child, but the Air Force failed four times to notify federal authorities who could have prevented him from buying firearms.
Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., said Kelly’s rampage prompted her to push for domestic violence to be made a stand-alone crime under military law. “We know that domestic violence is a prevalent issue in the military,” Rosen said.
In 2018, the military received 8,039 reported of incidents that met the criteria for domestic abuse, according to the Pentagon. About three-quarters involved physical abuse. Since 2009, the rate has remained at 2% reporting being abused by a spouse.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that millions of people are abused each year in instances of “intimate partner violence.” Nearly one in four women and one in seven men report having experienced severe physical violence at the hands of partner during their lifetime.
Don Christensen, the former chief prosecutor in the Air Force and president of Protect Our Defenders, a group that advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military, said it would be “devastating to have a secretary that has a history of domestic violence” if such allegations were true. That choice would “send the message that solving sexual and domestic violence is not a priority.”
If, however, Shanahan was the victim, Christensen said it could be valuable experience for leading the armed forces. “He’d have a better understanding of the seriousness of the issue, and I think especially the reluctance of victims to report or go public,” he said. “I’d hope he’d appreciate it’s not easy for victims to ‘just leave’ as so many think should happen.”
Contributing: Lindsay Schnell in Seattle, Christal Hayes in Sarasota, Florida, and David Jackson in Washington.