Mattis Faces Hurdles after Trump's SecDef Nod

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis testifies before lawmakers on the threat posed by ISIS other Islamic extremists, in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis testifies before lawmakers on the threat posed by ISIS other Islamic extremists, in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis already has strong and widespread support within the ranks, and on Capitol Hill, for his nomination by President-elect Donald Trump as defense secretary. But two hurdles stand in the way -- one legal, and the other political.

Right now, it's against the law for Mattis to serve as defense secretary under long-standing congressional mandates aimed at preserving civilian control of the military, and Democrats have begun citing the law as a potential roadblock to the nomination.

In addition, Mattis is sure to be challenged at confirmation hearings on his bluntly stated views on Israel, Iran and women in the military.

As an officer who retired in 2013, Mattis is currently barred from a cabinet post under the law, which states that servicemembers must be retired for at least seven years before they are eligible for a post requiring Senate confirmation.

Mattis would first need a waiver from Congress before the nomination process could begin and he was expected to get it. However, opposition immediately surfaced after Trump said Thursday, following some confusion among his transition team on the timing of the announcement, that the general he calls "Mad Dog"would be his choice.

"We are going to appoint 'Mad Dog' Mattis as our secretary of defense," Trump said in Cincinnati at his first post-election rally.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee that will hold hearings on Mattis' nomination, said she was against granting him a waiver.

"While I deeply respect Gen. Mattis' service, I will oppose a waiver," she said in a statement. "Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule."

Last month, as Mattis' name emerged as a frontrunner for the defense post, Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and ranking member of the defense panel, also voiced concerns on a waiver.

"It is clear that Gen. Mattis is a respected Marine and strategic thinker who served with honor and distinction," Reed said in a statement. "What is less clear is how Congress would go about changing the law to allow him, or any recently retired senior officer, to serve as the head of the Pentagon. That would require ‎a debate about our constitutional principle of civilian control of the military and passing a new bill."

Earlier, Trump got around the law against having retired officers in cabinet posts in the case of retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who also had been considered as a possible defense secretary nominee. Instead, Trump named Flynn his White House national security adviser, which does not require Senate confirmation.

Should Mattis receive the waiver, there could be debate at his confirmation hearings over his previous comments on Israel, Iran and the roles of women in the military. In Israel, the Jerusalem Post ran a story Friday citing Mattis' previous remarks about Israeli settlements on the West Bank under the headline: "Will Defense Secretary Mattis Help or Harm Israel?"

The Mattis choice "has already stirred controversy among right-wing pro-Israel groups, with some lamenting the choice and others praising it," the newspaper said.

The Zionist Organization of America has opposed Mattis' nomination while the Republican Jewish Coalition called Trump's choice of Mattis "smart and important."

Shortly after retiring in 2013, Mattis spoke at the Aspen Security Forum about the problems U.S. support of Israel caused for him when he headed U.S. Central Command.

"I paid a military-security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel," Mattis said.

He favored the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and warned that Israel risked becoming an "apartheid" state over its treatment of Palestinians.

"Either it (Israel) ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don't get to vote -- apartheid. That didn't work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country," Mattis said in reference to South Africa.

However, Mattis' views on Iran appeared to line up with those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mattis has called Iran the "greatest threat" to Mideast peace.

Questions about his support for Israel nearly derailed President Barack Obama's nomination of Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, as defense secretary. After stormy hearings held by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), Hagel got past the confirmation by a vote of 14-11.

"Chuck never recovered from that," Lawrence Korb, a military analyst at the Center for American Progress, said of Hagel, who resigned as defense secretary two years ago.

Referring to Mattis, Korb added, "I think he's going to get confirmed." Korb, a former assistant defense secretary in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, said he thought so because of the public's high esteem for the military.

Even so, the confirmation hearings could still pose a challenge for Mattis, Korb said. Mattis will inevitably be grilled on "how he will handle the social issues," he said.

Mattis has questioned whether women in the military are suited for what he has called the "intimate killing" of close combat.

Since the law against recently retired military officers taking cabinet posts was passed in 1947, Congress has made one exception -- for the nomination in 1950 as defense secretary of retired Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army's Chief of Staff during World War II.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and SASC chairman who will preside at hearings on Mattis, has praised Trump's nomination of Mattis and said he expected approval by Congress of a waiver, possibly in the lame-duck session.

Tom Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said he would "bet the mortgage" that Mattis gets the waiver and Senate confirmation. "Mattis is as good at it gets" in terms of the potential nominees Trump could have picked, Donnelly said.

"This is not his first rodeo," Donnelly said of Mattis, who has testified frequently before the Senate, including in his confirmation for U..S. Central Command.

Mattis is certain to be grilled on women in the military -- "that's for sure," Donnelly said, but Mattis can assert that the "combat exclusion rule" on women was lifted by Congress and it was settled policy, despite his personal opinions.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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