Politics & Government

How California’s Devin Nunes helped James Mattis become Trump’s defense pick

President-elect Donald Trump needed a defense secretary, and Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican from California, had an idea.

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis would be good, Nunes recalled telling the Trump transition team. Nunes, a member of the transition team’s influential executive committee, then called Mattis. The deal was eventually sealed. Trump selected Mattis for the top Pentagon post, and Nunes had another win with the incoming White House.

“They asked me for my help,” the 43-year-old Nunes said in an interview, “and so I’m helping them.”

As one of 20 members of the Trump transition team’s executive committee, Nunes is a combination of headhunter, Capitol Hill liaison and shaper of policy. He’s fielding job requests, vetting candidates and finding himself an ever-more popular guy in GOP circles.

“I have a lot more friends, that’s definitely for sure,” Nunes said with a laugh. “Every time I’m on the (House) floor, I have members coming up to me.”

Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Nunes helped support his committee colleague Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., as Trump’s pick to head the CIA. A fellow member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., was tapped to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

The only California lawmaker on the executive committee, Nunes estimated he’s been contacted by several hundred potential Trump administration job aspirants. They’re calling, sending e-mails and forwarding resumes. Their allies are sidling up to Nunes, putting in a good word. Sometimes, the pitches come from those who vocally opposed Trump in the GOP primaries, which Nunes called “kind of interesting.”

Nunes, in turn, communicates multiple times a day with Trump’s incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus or other transition leaders. Several times a week, the full executive committee convenes for a conference call.

“I don’t know if I’m looking for influence,” Nunes said, “so much as I’m looking for good people to be put into positions for them to be successful.”

Nunes started getting to know Trump’s team in the spring and first met Trump when the then-candidate visited Republican lawmakers in July. In August, the two men spent more time together in Trump’s plane and at fundraising and campaign events in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and Tulare County in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

The Tulare County fundraiser that Nunes helped set up collected about $1.3 million for the Trump campaign, organizers say.

Trump’s team contacted Nunes the day after the election and soon after announced his appointment to the executive committee, along with three of Trump’s adult children, five other House Republicans and California entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, among others.

Thiel is chairman of Palantir, a data company whose clients have included the CIA and other intelligence agencies, had roiled Silicon Valley by backing Trump, when most tech entrepreneurs were backing Hillary Clinton.

Nunes’ intelligence committee chairmanship had already familiarized him with Mattis and Trump’s incoming national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, a sharp-elbowed retired Army lieutenant general and Defense Intelligence Agency chief who Nunes called a “good friend.”

Prior to Thanksgiving, Nunes recounted, the Trump transition team shared with him the names of potential defense secretary nominees. Nunes suggested the addition of Mattis, the 66-year-old former head of U.S. Central Command.

“He wasn’t on the (original) list,” Nunes said. “I explained why I thought he would be good, and so they asked me if I would contact him, which I did.”

Nunes said he e-mailed Mattis, who told him to “call any time.” The two subsequently conversed, and Trump himself talked with Nunes by phone one night about the potential selection. By Nov. 22, Trump told the New York Times that he was “seriously considering” Mattis for the Pentagon job. Trump told a campaign-style rally in Indiana on Dec. 1 that he would nominate the retired four-star general.

“They say he’s the closest thing to Gen. George Patton that we have,” Trump said.

Because Mattis retired from the military less than seven years ago, he would need a congressional waiver to serve as civilian secretary of defense. On Tuesday, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, said that while he respected Mattis, “it would be a grave mistake” for Republicans to slip the waiver into a must-pass spending bill.

Nunes, meanwhile, will continue with broader Trump transition efforts that include crafting tax-and-trade legislation and finding candidates for some of the 4,000 or so presidentially appointed positions that will await filling.

“Whenever I feel comfortable,” Nunes said, “I give them a name.”

Michael Doyle: 202-383-6153, @MichaelDoyle10