WASHINGTON: After almost two decades in Hong Kong riding the Chinese economic buffalo, a man little known in Washington is apparently the frontrunner for Navy Secretary in the Trump administration.
One source with deep knowledge of the Navy and GOP politics called the pick of Philip Bilden “f**ing ludicrous.” Another, with similar credentials, called it “crazy.” Bilden has apparently used contributions to the Naval Academy Foundation, Naval War College Foundation and to the GOP, including Mitt Romney’s failed campaign, to build a path of influence into a world he has never operated in. He apparently lives in Newport, R.I., home of the Naval War College, after spending some 20 years in Asia as a top player at HarbourVest Partners.
A board member of the United States Naval Academy Foundation, he has served, appropriately enough, on its development committee. He is also a trustee of the Naval War College Foundation, where he’s helped raise money for its Center for Cyber Conflict Studies. Presumably, these efforts have helped gain him access to senior civilian and uniformed leaders of the Navy. However, he has spent relatively little time in the United States as an adult and, as far as I can tell at this stage, has never worked in the wider military or policy world.
The assumed nominee, until today, was the respected former chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower, Randy Forbes. Of course, Bilden’s name surfacing doesn’t mean he’s a lock, but it may be a very interesting indicator of just how important campaign contributions and being quite rich can help one get a top national security job in the Trump Administration. At the same time, the hedge fund magnate who was briefly bruited as deputy Defense Secretary, David McCormick, president of Bridgewater Associate’s management committee, is apparently no more. The current DepSecDef, Bob Work, has been asked to stay on for at least a few months.
All this may raise questions about the management of the personnel search, being run largely by Vice President-elect Mike Pence and his team. I understand Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, also has considerable input on at least some nominees. Counting McCormick’s abortive bid, this is at least the third prospective national security nominee to have raised serious questions about what kind of defense leaders Trump wants. Vincent Viola, one of the 400 wealthiest people in America, nudged out veteran lobbyist Van Hipp, a principal at American Defense International, in the battle for Army Secretary. Hipp served in the Army during Operations Desert Shield and Storm and knew his way around defense issues and Capitol Hill as well as anyone. By contrast, Viola, who did graduate from West Point, has spent the majority of his adult life on Wall Street, where he’s obviously been very successful — as has Bilden.