WASHINGTON — Retired Gen. James Mattis on Thursday cruised toward likely confirmation as Donald Trump's defense secretary, easily prevailing in a Senate vote granting him an exemption to run the Pentagon as a recently retired officer. At his confirmation hearing, he called Russia the nation's No. 1 security threat, accusing its leader of trying to "break" NATO.
The Senate voted 81-17 to approve legislation overriding a prohibition against former U.S. service members who have been out of uniform less than seven years from holding the Defense Department's top job. The restriction is meant to preserve civilian control of the military. The House Armed Services Committee backed the waiver in a 34-28 vote; the full House will take up the matter Friday.
Mattis, 66, spent four decades in uniform, retiring in 2013 with a reputation as an effective combat leader and an astute strategist. Separate from the override legislation, the Senate will vote later on Mattis' nomination and will almost certainly confirm him.
The only other exception to the seven-year rule was made for the legendary George Marshall in 1950, the year Mattis was born. Even some of Trump's strongest critics have supported the waiver for Mattis, arguing that his experience and temperament can serve as a steadying influence on a new president with no experience in national security.
It was unclear if President Barack Obama would sign the legislation allowing Mattis to take up the post, or if it would fall to Trump after his inauguration.
At an uncontentious confirmation hearing, Mattis sketched an international security scene dominated by dark images of an aggressive Russia, resurgent China and violent Mideast. He described Iran as a major destabilizing force, called North Korea a potential nuclear threat and said the U.S. military needs to grow larger and readier for combat.
"We see each day a world awash in change," Mattis said. "Our country is still at war in Afghanistan and our troops are fighting against ISIS and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere. Russia is raising grave concerns on several fronts, and China is shredding trust along its periphery."
Mattis portrayed Russia as an adversary and said the history of U.S.-Russian relations is not encouraging.
"I have very modest expectations for areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin," he said, delivering an assessment strikingly dissonant with that of his potential commander in chief. Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, even as U.S. intelligence agencies have accused the Russian leader of orchestrating a campaign of interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Of Putin, said Mattis, a former NATO military leader: "He is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance."
He said he has explained to Trump his views on Russia, which include a deep worry that Moscow is determined to use intimidation and nuclear threats to create a sphere of unstable states on its periphery.
Mattis, who has served in numerous senior military positions, including commander of U.S. Central Command in charge of all American forces in the Middle East, said he supports the Obama administration's moves to reassure European allies after Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and military activity in eastern Ukraine.
While the U.S. should remain open to working with Russia, Mattis said, the prospects for cooperation were narrowing even as areas of disagreement grow larger.
As he spoke, Trump's choice to run the CIA, Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, sided with intelligence officials who claim the Kremlin was behind the election cyberattacks, adopting a similarly tough stand against Russia in his confirmation hearing. Ties between the former Cold War foes also have been strained by Syria's civil war.
Mattis faced no hostile questions from Republicans or Democrats, receiving bipartisan praise for his reputation as a straight-talking, well-read man of integrity and intelligence.
William Cohen, a defense secretary for Democratic President Bill Clinton, introduced Mattis as a "humble man with very little to be humble about."
"He's a man of thought as well as action," Cohen said.
Mattis said the world order is under "the biggest attack since World War II," blaming Russia, China and international terrorist organizations for its destabilization.
On cyberattacks, Mattis noted that wars often are started by miscalculation. He said the U.S. needs to set clear boundaries so that adversaries know what the U.S. will not tolerate.
In prepared testimony, Mattis said he understands his role as the Defense Department's civilian leader would be different "in essence and in substance" from his four decades in uniform. He called civilian control "a fundamental tenet of the American military tradition."
|© The Associated Press Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis listens to questions from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., about his views on women and gays serving in the military, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed…|
James Mattis Strikes Far Harsher Tone Than Trump on Russia
WASHINGTON — James N. Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general, told Congress on Thursday that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was trying to “break the North Atlantic alliance,” staking out a tougher stance on Russia during a confirmation hearing for defense secretary than his prospective commander in chief did on the campaign trail.
“I’m all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality,” General Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “There’s a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and increasing numbers of areas where we’re going to have to confront Russia.”
In a three-hour hearing, General Mattis argued for expanding the armed forces, improving the military’s readiness to go into battle on short notice and reinvigorating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by maintaining a permanent armed American presence in Baltic nations to deter a Russian attack, among other steps.
“My view is that nations with allies thrive and nations without allies don’t,” General Mattis said.
Intelligence Chief’s Olive Branch to Trump Gets Twisted in Translation JAN. 12, 2017
Those remarks were a striking contrast to comments by President-elect Donald J. Trump during the campaign that American support for the alliance should be conditional on financial contributions by its members.
After the hearing, General Mattis took a major step toward confirmation when the Republican-led Senate decisively approved a waiver that would permit him to become defense secretary, by a vote of 81 to 17. Separately, the House Armed Services Committee narrowly backed a waiver for him, 34 to 28 along party lines.
Military officers are barred by law from serving as defense secretary unless they have been retired for seven years; General Mattis left active duty in May 2013. His supporters hope that Mr. Trump will sign legislation enabling him to begin service as the Pentagon chief on the new president’s first day in office so that his nomination and confirmation can quickly follow.
In his testimony on Thursday, General Mattis won over most of the Senate panel’s Democrats as they seemed to invest in him their hopes that he will rein in some of Mr. Trump’s more impetuous national security impulses. In return, General Mattis gave them plenty of reason for hope.
In addition to his remarks skeptical of Russia and supportive of NATO, General Mattis tacked to the left of President-elect Trump and most of the Republicans in Congress on whether to keep the agreement constraining Iran’s nuclear program. Mr. Trump has said that his top priority is to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” But General Mattis urged the United States to take steps to rigorously enforce it.
“I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement — it’s not a friendship treaty,” he said. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.”
General Mattis also said he had no intention of revisiting Obama administration decisions on social issues at the Defense Department, including the opening of combat roles to women or allowing openly gay men and women to serve.
“I believe that military service is a touchstone for patriots of whatever stripe,” he said. “I’ve never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with.”
Trying to reassure lawmakers that he would not be too quick to urge the use of military force, General Mattis said the nickname he had been given, “Mad Dog,” was an invention of the news media, ignoring the fact that Mr. Trump seemed to use it at every opportunity. The general’s battlefield call sign was “Chaos.”
But it was also clear that General Mattis favors a more assertive response to Iran, which he described in a written submission to the Senate committee as the “biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East.”
General Mattis did not say how many American troops should be kept in Iraq, but he asserted that the United States needed to maintain its influence there long after Mosul is retaken from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to ensure that Iraq “does not become a rump state of the regime in Tehran.”
The United States strategy for taking Raqqa, Syria, the capital of the Islamic State, he said, “needs to be reviewed and perhaps energized on a more aggressive timeline.”
Some notable Democrats were persuaded by General Mattis’s independent streak, fluency with military issues and repeated promises to uphold the principle of civilian control and consult Congress.
Senators Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Tim Kaine of Virginia, the former Democratic candidate for vice president and a committee member, were among the lawmakers who voted for a waiver.
Three Democrats on the committee voted against amending the law: Senators Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Ms. Warren’s vote was somewhat surprising as she devoted her question time to urging General Mattis to consider channeling more military spending to research laboratories in Massachusetts and thanking him for his assurances that he would provide the new president with his candid advice.
“Under what circumstances will you advocate for your views forcefully and frankly?” Ms. Warren asked.
“On every circumstance, senator,” he replied.
“I am very glad to hear that,” she said. “Thank you.”
James Mattis Says He Has the 'Highest Confidence' in US Intelligence Agencies
James Mattis, the retired Marine general who is President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to be the next defense secretary, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Russia continues to be “an adversary in key areas” and the country must honor what he called the "imperfect" arms control agreement with Iran.
Mattis, 66, also addressed the recent attacks on U.S. intelligence agencies at his confirmation hearing, noting that he has a "very very high degree of confidence" in them based on his "close relationship with the intelligence community." According to Mattis, he interacted with the nation's spy agencies almost daily during his time in the military.
While Trump has often said the Iranian deal should be scuttled, Mattis said the United States has to live up to its agreement. "When America gives its word we have to live up to it and work with our allies," he testified.
He also told the committee that he "would not have taken this job if I didn't believe the president-elect would also be open to my input on this or any other matter."
The 'Most Successful Military Alliance'
When asked about the country's membership in NATO, which Trump has repeatedly criticized, Mattis called it the "most successful military alliance probably in modern world history, maybe ever."
He saw the United States "maintaining the strongest possible relationship" with NATO. "My view is that nations with allies thrive and nations without allies don't," he argued.
He said he has spoken with Trump about the issue and found him "open" to his viewpoint "even to the point of asking more questions, going deeper into the issue, about why I feel so strongly, and he understands where I stand," Mattis explained.
Mattis said he would work with other members of the Trump national security team "to carry these views forward."
Regarding Trump's favorable comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mattis said his view of Putin is "that he has chosen to be both a strategic competitor" and an adversary in key areas. He expressed support for Trump's engagement with Russia "but I have very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin."
Earlier in the hearing Mattis said he has foreseen an "increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia."
On the topic of resolving tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Mattis affirmed that the incoming administration would work to promote peace between the two adversaries.
It's "going to take time to build that kind of trust. And we should be a partner in trying to build that resolution between those people," he said. Mattis said he backed the two-state solution "if that brings peace to the middle east I’m eager to see it work."
An 'American Military Tradition'
In his prepared remarks, Mattis called civilian control of the military "a fundamental tenet of the American military tradition."
"I recognize my potential civilian role differs in essence and in substance from my former role in uniform," he said. If Congress passes an exemption to the seven-year requirement, "I will provide strong civilian leadership of military plans and decisions," he added.
Mattis said his priorities as defense secretary would be "to strengthen military readiness, strengthen our alliances in league with our diplomatic partners and bring business reforms to the Department of Defense."
Moreover, he would "work to make sure our strategy and military calculus are employed to reinforce traditional tools of diplomacy, ensuring our President and our diplomats negotiate from a position of strength.”
"It would be the highest honor, if I am confirmed, to lead those who volunteer to defend our country,” he concluded.
Before Mattis can be confirmed as defense secretary, both houses of Congress will have to pass legislation that exempts Mattis from the legal barrier that prevents former members of the military from serving in that role until seven years have passed from the time they left military service. Mattis retired from the Marine Corps in 2013 after a 41-year career.
The legal restriction was enacted in the National Security Act of 1947 that created the Defense Department. A waiver has only been granted once, in 1950, to retired General George Marshall as he moved from his position as secretary of state to become the defense secretary under the Truman administration.
This afternoon the Armed Services Committees in both the House and Senate have voted in favor of a waiver for Mattis.
When he retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, Mattis was the commander of U.S. Central Command overseeing all American troops in the Middle East and with responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That culminated a career with significant experience as a battlefield commander in Iraq during the Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was also in command of Marine forces in 2004 during both battles for Fallujah.
Along with Army General David Petraeus, Mattis co-authored the military's counterinsurgency strategy that helped turn the insurgent tide in Iraq in 2007.
Trump often refers to Mattis by the nickname of "Mad Dog" that describes his tenacity on and off the battlefield.
But he is also known as the "Warrior Monk," a nickname that refers to his singular focus on military history, tactics and strategy, traits along with his unmarried status.