In a sharp turn of events, President-elect Donald Trump is expected to name Philip Bilden, a private equity investment firm executive with no military or government experience, to be his first secretary of the Navy. The appointment would be the latest sign that Trump wants wealthy businessmen rather than military, policy or political leaders to run the military service agencies.
Bilden has now “moved to the front of the pack and is expected to be named as early as next week,” one transition official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about internal deliberations, told me. A second transition official confirmed that Bilden is now the likely choice, although nothing is final until announced. For months until recently, former Republican congressman Randy Forbes was widely expected to be named Navy secretary. Forbes had visited Trump Tower multiple times and was approved by top Trump transition officials.
But over the past couple of weeks, Bilden has emerged as Trump’s choice. His appointment would follow the appointment of another wealthy businessman, Vincent Viola, to be secretary of the Army. Trump’s defense secretary nominee, retired Gen. James N. Mattis, was furious about the Viola appointment, mostly because he wasn’t in the loop. But transition sources told me Mattis has signed off on Bilden.
Bilden does have extensive experience in Asia. He moved to Hong Kong in 1996 to open the Asian subsidiary of HarbourVest Partners, a leading private equity firm, and has lived there ever since. In 2013, he was named one of Asia’s 25 Most Influential People in Private Equity by Asian Investor magazine. He sits on the Board of Visitors of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the Asia Pacific Advisory Board of Harvard Business School.
Still, some inside the Defense Department see Bilden’s lack of experience in government or military service as a problem.
“We’re going to have the biggest Naval buildup since Ronald Reagan and Trump is going to pick a private equity guy whose only qualification seems to be his wallet,” one Defense Department official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about transition matters, grumbled.