- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 26, 2020

President Trump’s Navy secretary pick seems to be slowly sinking.

The president tapped U.S. Ambassador to Norway Kenneth Braithwaite, a retired admiral and former naval aviator, for the post three months ago, but key lawmakers on Capitol Hill told The Washington Times that they have yet to hold customary one-on-one meetings with the nominee and confirmed that the White House hasn’t sent the formal paperwork to move the nomination forward.

The unusual scenario reminds some of the ill-fated bid of former Boeing executive and acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan to become permanent Pentagon chief last year. The nomination languished in administrative limbo for months before dying.

The void atop the Navy will come into sharp focus Thursday when acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly and other key officials testify before the House Armed Services Committee to defend the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request.

Mr. Braithwaite was supposed to step in quickly for Richard V. Spencer, whom Mr. Trump fired in a public and angry clash over Mr. Spencer’s handling of the case of a Navy SEAL who was accused of war crimes and pardoned by Mr. Trump.

Along with the leadership lag, the Navy faces a host of technological and budgetary challenges as it seeks to expand and modernize its fleet, analysts say.

Although the reasons behind the nomination troubles are not entirely clear, Mr. Braithwaite faced questions this year about reports that he did not disclose previous dealings with the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, the company at the center of a controversy over Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

The president’s supporters say something more sinister is lurking beneath the surface. They say Mr. Braithwaite, who worked on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign in the bellwether battleground state of Pennsylvania, is facing behind-the-scenes resistance because of his politics.

“Since Day One, it’s been difficult for known Trump and ‘America First’ supporters to get confirmed by the Senate for senior administration posts. Now with elections rapidly approaching, that appears even more so,” said J.D. Gordon, a former Trump campaign national security adviser and Pentagon spokesman. “Hopefully, this hostility and obstructionism will end soon, though given my experiences over the past few years, it’s not looking good.”

Whether or not Mr. Braithwaite’s support for the president is playing a role in the delay, the issue is part of a broader outcry over Mr. Trump’s efforts to install political allies in top military and intelligence posts. This month, the president tapped Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, a longtime, sharp-tongued defender, to serve as acting director of national intelligence, even though he has little experience in the field. Mr. Trump reportedly is considering other candidates for the permanent post.

Waiting for Braithwaite

The case of Mr. Braithwaite is different. The ambassador has a wealth of military experience after serving nearly three decades in the Navy and achieving the rank of rear admiral before retiring in 2011.

Capitol Hill has shown little sign of political opposition to Mr. Braithwaite’s nomination. Instead, key lawmakers insist in interviews that they are in favor of the nomination and are eager to move it ahead as quickly as possible.

“The paperwork is always the last thing to come in but also isn’t an excuse not to do anything,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican. “And I think we’ve all had meetings with him and he’s a good choice, and I wouldn’t criticize the president’s choice.”

The Armed Services Committee would be the first panel to scrutinize Mr. Braithwaite’s nomination.

Mr. Inhofe confirmed that the White House hasn’t finalized the paperwork and said he has had no conversations with administration officials about when senators might receive the documentation. Mr. Inhofe also said he has not had a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Braithwaite and has sat down with him only in a group setting.

It is regular practice for committee chairs to meet individually with nominees ahead of confirmation hearings.

Although the nomination process seems out of the ordinary, the circumstances that led to the selection of Mr. Braithwaite were even more unusual.

Mr. Trump picked Mr. Braithwaite almost immediately after firing Mr. Spencer, who clashed with the White House over the fate of retired Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, a chief special operator.

Chief Gallagher was convicted last year of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter in Iraq but was acquitted of more serious charges such as murder. He was demoted by the Navy as a result of that conviction.

But Mr. Trump last year reversed that demotion and restored Chief Gallagher’s rank. The president then publicly intervened and ordered the Navy to cancel a planned review panel that could have resulted in new punishment for Mr. Gallagher. Mr. Spencer at the time said he intended to go ahead with the review, but the Pentagon later revealed that he had been holding secret talks with the White House about moving forward.

Those meetings were held without the knowledge of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and Mr. Spencer was fired immediately after they came to light.

The night Mr. Spencer was fired, Mr. Esper formally recommended Mr. Braithwaite as his replacement.

Unlike some other former Trump administration officials, Mr. Spencer did not go quietly. He penned a Washington Post op-ed piece that said the Gallagher incident was “a reminder that Mr. Trump has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”

Despite the president’s quick decision, Mr. Braithwaite’s formal nomination has moved ahead at an exceedingly slow pace.

CBS News reported last month that Mr. Braithwaite had been involved with Cambridge Analytica, which came under fire after the 2016 election for its role in using personal Facebook data to drive political advertising.

Mr. Braithwaite acknowledged having conversations with the company about consulting work but denied receiving any money or formalizing the relationship.

“I had been willing to provide advice on an informal basis while those conversations were underway, and I entered into a [nondisclosure agreement] to explore possibly formalizing a business relationship,” he told CBS. “However, I was never an employee of [Cambridge Analytica], never referred any potential customers to them and never received any compensation from the company.”

• Lauren Toms can be reached at lmeier@washingtontimes.com.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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