Ex-military leaders in cabinet posts: Why lawmakers may give Gen. Mattis a waiver

James Mattis, a retired general nominated for secretary of Defense, does not meet the requirement that secretaries have been retired from the military for seven years. Why some Democrats may give him a pass. 

Jonathan Ernst/ Reuters
Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis (L) sits next to former US Senator William Cohen, who, with former US Senator San Nunn, introduced Mattis at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to serve as defense secretary., on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017.

The Senate began its confirmation hearing on Thursday morning for James Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general picked by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as secretary of Defense.

Members of Congress must decided whether to grant Mattis, who retired in 2013, a waiver from a law that requires military personnel to have been retired for at least seven years before holding the position. Congress has only granted one such waiver in the past, when President Harry Truman nominated WWII Gen. George Marshall as secretary of Defense in 1950.

The waiver requirement exists to keep civilians in control of the military – a value that has already led some members of Congress to make up their minds to vote against the waiver.

“Civilian control is a fundamental principle of American democracy,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York said in a statement issued last week, “and I will not vote for an exception to this rule.”

But other Democrats are more open to Mattis' nomination, prompted, in part, by his firm position on Russia and his opposition to waterboarding as an interrogation technique. 

"But for his short tenure out of uniform, I'd have unequivocal support for him," Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of New York said at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast briefing last month.

The lack of widespread opposition to a waiver indicates that Representatives Schiff’s position may be closer to the mainstream. The former general's stances on several foreign-policy and national-security issues suggest that he could serve as a counterweight to Mr. Trump and some of his other picks, countering some lawmakers' concerns about civilian control.

Mattis could serve as a "stabilizing and moderating force," and prevent "wildly stupid, dangerous or illegal things from happening" during the next administration, Eliot Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, told Reuters.

Many of Mattis' positions stand in contrast to those embraced by Trump during the campaign. He has argued that the US should maintain its nuclear deal with Iran, often derided by Trump, and voiced support for stern responses to Russia.

On the Iran deal: "When America gives its word we have to live up to it and work with our allies," he testified Thursday in a Senate hearing.

In private conversations with Trump, Mattis has already argued against the use of torture, telling the president-elect “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I'll do better.”

These attitudes set Mattis apart from some of Trump’s other choices for top national-security positions. The Senate’s Intelligence Committee will hold another confirmation hearing today for Rep. Mike Pompeo (R) of Kansas, selected by Trump to head the CIA. Representative Pompeo has defended so-called Enhanced Interrogation Techniques like waterboarding, and called for the National Security Administration to resume the bulk collection of telephone data from US citizens.

Mattis "may be a restraint on some of Trump's more extreme impulses," Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Reuters. "The concern that people would have is OK, you vote down Mattis, who do you get?"

Similar questions may push lawmakers to exempt Mattis from the seven-year requirement. 

The United States' civil-military relations could "withstand any risk such a once-in-two-generations [waiver], on its own, could pose," Kathleen Hicks, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Associated Press.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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