Vice President Mike Pence has contacted former Democratic senator and Navy Secretary Jim Webb to gauge his interest in succeeding Jim Mattis as defense secretary, according to retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, who has close ties to the Trump administration.
"Well, I think it is a possibility. From what I understand, Vice President Pence has reached out to him," Keane, a Fox News military analyst, said Friday on the Fox program "The Story."
Keane, who was believed to be on the short list as a possible nominee for the job before then-President-elect Donald Trump chose Mattis, said Trump administration officials are "taking a close look at [Webb's] views on various things and think he will be able to identify where President Trump is moving" on a range of issues.
However, Trump denied that Webb is under consideration in a tweet sent Friday afternoon.
Late last month, Trump named Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, the No. 2 at the Pentagon, to serve as acting secretary to fill the leadership void left by the abrupt resignation of Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, on Dec. 20, a day after the president announced that an estimated 2,000 U.S. troops would withdraw from Syria.
The New York Times, citing administration officials, was first to report that Webb is being considered as Mattis' replacement.
Webb, 72, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1968 and earned the Navy Cross as a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam. He served as Navy secretary for 10 months in the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
From 2007 to 2013, he served a single term as a Democratic senator from Virginia, and he is considered the main sponsor of the new GI Bill for post-9/11 veterans. Before running for the Senate, he was a registered Republican.
In 2015, Webb formed an exploratory committee and participated in primary debates in a brief run for the Democratic presidential nomination, but his candidacy failed to gain traction.
Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, is known to be open to accepting the nomination to the permanent position as defense secretary and could possibly serve as acting secretary "for a long time" while potential candidates are considered, Trump said earlier this week.
Add after last graf existing story ending -- earlier this week
Keane has ruled himself out for possible consideration as a nominee for defense secretary.
Others believed to be under consideration include former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Missouri, and current Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, although Graham has just been named to chair the influential Senate Judiciary Committee.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, a decorated Vietnam veteran who now serves as an adviser to Pence, also was believed to be on Trump's short list before he chose Mattis.
Should Webb be nominated, he would likely face a difficult confirmation hearing in the Senate, where Mattis was respected on both sides of the aisle and rarely was contested at hearings.
Mattis was confirmed by a vote of 98-1, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, casting the lone "No" vote. Gillibrand made clear that Mattis would have been her choice, but she voted against him to register a protest to the waiver that allowed him to serve. (Military officers are required to be retired at least seven years before assuming leadership of the Pentagon.)
Female members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, who earlier this week announced she was forming an exploratory committee to pursue the Democratic presidential nomination, also could be expected to challenge Webb, particularly for a 1979 article he wrote for Washingtonian magazine entitled, "Women Can't Fight."
In the article, Webb argued that allowing women to serve in combat positions would harm national defense.
Senators tend to have long political memories, and the combative Webb, as a Democrat and a Republican, has made enemies over the years.
Then-President Reagan first made Webb an assistant secretary of defense and then Navy secretary in 1987, but Webb resigned in 1988 over a funding dispute with then-Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci. Reagan later wrote in his diaries of Webb, "I don't think the Navy was sorry to see him go."
In 1994, Webb, as a Republican, endorsed incumbent Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Virginia, also a Marine veteran of Vietnam, against Republican challenger retired Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, himself a controversial figure in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Robb defeated North, now president of the National Rifle Association, extending the long-running feud between Webb and North that dates to their days together at the Naval Academy. In 1967, Webb fought North for the academy's middleweight boxing championship in a bout that can still stir arguments at Annapolis on the outcome. North was declared the winner by decision.
Webb holds a law degree from Georgetown Law and is the author of 10 books, including the acclaimed novel, "Fields of Fire," on Vietnam. He also is an Emmy Award-winning journalist and filmmaker.
Webb's views on Trump's announcement of the Syria withdrawal and possible reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan were not immediately known, but he has warned of the rise of China and China's claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea, which fits with Trump's policies and the current National Defense Strategy.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com.