Why a top Democrat is open to Trump's pick for Pentagon

Congress would need to issue a waiver to allow Gen. James Mattis to serve as secretary of Defense, a civilian position.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Rep. Adam Schiff speaks at the St. Regis Hotel on Dec. 6, 2016 in Washington.

As President-elect Donald Trump announces his nomination of retired Gen. James Mattis to be secretary of Defense this week, a top-ranking Democrat says that he would consider supporting the recently retired military officer, depending on how many other generals Mr. Trump endeavors to bring into his cabinet. 

“But for his short tenure out of uniform, I’d have unequivocal support for him,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee, said at a Monitor breakfast briefing on Tuesday. 

Any service member who – like Mattis – has been retired for less than seven years requires a congressional waiver to serve in the job. The first and only such waiver issued for a Defense secretary was granted to retired Gen. George Marshall in 1950.

Trump has already picked retired three-star Gen. Michael Flynn to be his national security adviser. He is also said to be eying retired Gen. David Petraeus to be secretary of State, and retired Adm. Michael Rogers to serve as his director of National Intelligence. 

“What may tip the balance for me is if the president-elect populates even more positions with former military,” Representative Schiff said. “I think if he starts making these other nominations other than Mattis, it’s going to place the Mattis waiver in jeopardy, at least as far as the Democrats are concerned.” 

On the plus side, Schiff says he believes Mattis would help “push back” against Trump and Mr. Flynn, “who seem to see Russia as our friend.” Mattis is also far more likely to “speak candidly about Russian intentions,” and impressed Democrats by counseling Trump against torturing detainees from America’s war on terror.

The retired Marine Corps general is more likely, too, to “speak powerfully about the need to support NATO” and US European allies, Schiff said. And though he has expressed trepidation about the Iran nuclear deal, Mattis has also cautioned that it would be a mistake for the US to go back on the terms of the agreement. 

Yet the most alarming national security development recently has been a tweet, Schiff warned Tuesday. 

It was Trump’s blast to his followers claiming that “millions” of undocumented workers voted illegally.

Not only is the information “patently false,” Schiff said, but it undermines the office of the president. 

It’s the sort of credibility that is key to calling countries out when they launch a cyber incursions into US networks, for example – such as when North Korea hacked into Sony servers, and the US government named them as the culprit.

“That only works if the president has credibility,” Schiff says. “So when you have a president-elect that sends out patently false information that millions of undocumented workers voted, that impugns the credibility of the president, and at some point the president is going to need to be believed by the country.” 

The continued irresponsible tweeting demonstrates that the president-elect isn’t pursuing what should be the chief priority of any new president, Schiff said: "Not the hiring of people, but growing into the job,” he added. “His words have much greater consequence than before.” 

Schiff took aim at Flynn as well, for a recent opinion piece he wrote about Turkey, and advocating a closer relationship with the administration of the nation’s president Recap Tayyip Erdogan, who has been jailing opponents, closing down credible newspapers, and using a recent coup to consolidate his power.

The question of whether the new Trump administration is advocating a “better, closer” relationship with Erdogan underscores why it is vital that Trump and other members of his new government are transparent about their business interests. A vocal supporter of President Erdogan's crackdown has business ties with Trump worth millions.

“You’d have to be completely oblivious to what’s going on in Turkey” to make statements like those that Flynn has made about Erdogan creates “profound questions” about what is motivating these flattering statements: the best interests of the United States and its values, or the business interests of Trump and his officials. 

“The fact of the matter is we shouldn’t be having these questions,” Schiff says. “We can’t be having these questions in the future. Whether there’s any legitimacy to any of them,” he added. “These are not questions the American public should be asking about the new president once he takes office.”

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