CAPITOL HILL: Rep. Randy Forbes still has plenty of fans, but Sec. Jim Mattis apparently isn’t one of them, which makes Forbes a long shot for Secretary of the Navy. Yes, the withdrawal of Philip Bilden’s nomination for SecNav reopens Forbes’ path to the position, even triggering an endorsement from The Wall Street Journal. But it’s still a treacherous road, slick with the unpredictabilities and managerial eccentricities of a nascent Trump Administration.
“I’ve known Randy Forbes a long time. I think he would be a terrific candidate for the Secretary of the Navy,” House Armed Services chairman Mac Thornberry told reporters this afternoon.
More broadly, Thornberry said, the Administration and the Senate need to get moving on nominations. “Secretary Mattis is still the only Senate-confirmed person in the whole Department right now,” he said. “I am concerned that basically you’ve got the Secretary and then a lot of other folks who don’t necessarily share this administration’s viewpoint.”
Thornberry declined to comment on the abortive candidacies of Bilden and Army Secretary nominee Vincent Viola, who also withdrew, other than to say our political system may makes it excessively difficult for successful businessmen to serve. Both men cited their extensive business interests as a complicating factor. Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain, whose committee holds the actual nomination hearings, said with characteristic snark that maybe Trump should not nominate another billionaire, “maybe just a multimillionaire.”
Asked about Navy Secretary candidates, McCain says it shouldn't be a billionaire with complex finances.
"Maybe just a multimillionaire."
— Connor O'Brien (@connorobrienNH) February 28, 2017
Forbes was a career politician who’d served at the state and federal level since 1989, the kind of person the Trump administration seems uncomfortable with. As the influential former chairman of the House seapower subcommittee, Forbes was the widely reported front-runner for Secretary of the Navy under Donald Trump, and our sources were certainly blindsided by Bilden’s appointment. Bilden’s withdrawal Sunday — after vehement denials from the White House that such a thing would happen — put the SecNav position up for grabs again. Combined with Viola’s withdrawal earlier, Bilden’s quitting suggests some dysfunction in how the Trump team chooses candidates.
We hear and read that Mattis naturally wants to populate the Pentagon’s E-Ring with his own people. We also hear that Mattis is very reluctant to take former members of Congress aboard, though we don’t know why. Perhaps they’re too political or too independent — either of which is a potential problem with Forbes, who was an outspoken critic of the Obama Administration and a major force in naval policy until he lost a primary against a former Navy SEAL turned Tea Party insurgent. As Navy Secretary, Forbes would probably not sit quietly in his office and wait for Mattis’s orders.
But if Mattis is really ruling out Capitol Hill, and the Trump team is ruling out Washington insiders, they’ve narrowed down the places they can look for talent. Perhaps it’s time to open the aperture back up.