Senate Confirms Mattis as Secretary of Defense

Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis arrives for church service at St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, on Donald Trump's inauguration day. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis arrives for church service at St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House in Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, on Donald Trump's inauguration day. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The U.S. Senate on Friday confirmed retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to serve as the next secretary of defense.

A majority of the upper chamber voted in favor of Mattis taking over the top civilian job at the Pentagon.

In a statement later in the evening to Pentagon employees, the former head of Central Command said it felt "good to be back."

"Together with the intelligence community we are the sentinels and guardians of our nation," he said. "We need only look to you, the uniformed and civilian members of the department and your families, to see the fundamental unity of our country. You represent an America committed to the common good; an America that is never complacent about defending its freedoms; and an America that remains a steady beacon of hope for all mankind. Mattis added, "Every action we take will be designed to ensure our military is ready to fight today and in the future. Recognizing that no nation is secure without friends, we will work with the State Department to strengthen our alliances. Further, we are devoted to gaining full value from every taxpayer dollar spent on defense, thereby earning the trust of Congress and the American people. He closed, "I am confident you will do your part. I pledge to you I'll do my best as your Secretary."

The Senate voted 98 in support of Mattis, one against and one absent. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, voted "no" in a symbolic gesture to highlight the need for civilian control of the military. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, recused himself because he has been nominated to serve in the Trump administration as attorney general.

Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, praised the confirmation.

"Reforming and rebuilding our military is an enormous task," he said in a statement. "The American people and the Congress are very fortunate to have an extraordinary leader and partner to help tackle this challenge in our new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis. I can think of no better choice to serve at the helm of the Pentagon beginning on day one of the new Administration."

The Senate action came after President Donald Trump, in one of his first acts as the new commander in chief, signed a waiver passed by Congress to permit Mattis to serve in the role.

After taking the oath of office, Trump remained at the Capitol to sign a number of documents officially nominating his choices for cabinet and ambassador posts and to declare Jan. 20 a "National Day of Patriotism."

Among the documents was the historic waiver for the 66-year-old Mattis, who led the 2003 invasion of Iraq as commander of the 1st Marine Division, commanded a task force in Afghanistan in 2001, and commanded a battalion in the Persian Gulf war in 1990.

In 1947, Congress passed a law barring members of the military from taking the Defense Secretary’s post until seven years after retirement to preserve civilian control of the military. Mattis retired in 2013.

The only previous exception to the law was the waiver granted to Gen. George C. Marshall, the five-star Army chief of staff in World War II, who became Defense Secretary in 1950.

Earlier this week in separate action, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted 26-1 to approve Mattis for a confirmation vote by the full Senate. The only "no" vote in the panel was from Gillibrand, who praised Mattis but said she was voting against him on the issue of civilian control.

Mattis was expected to make his first visit as the 26th secretary of defense to the Pentagon to meet with Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford and Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, who was staying on temporarily at the Pentagon to assist with management issues.

During the campaign, Trump said he would demand a plan from his commanders within 30 days of taking office speed up and ultimately end the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. In his inaugural address, Trump said he would "eradicate radical Islamic terrorism from the face of the Earth."

During his Senate confirmation hearings, Mattis also said he would be reviewing plans to "accelerate" the ISIS campaign but gave no details.

Already, there were signs that the U.S. military was moving more aggressively against ISIS and also the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. On Wednesday, in the last combat mission specifically authorized by President Barack Obama, B-2 Spirit stealth bombers flying out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri struck ISIS camps in Libya.

On Thursday, a B-52 Stratofortress bomber deployed to the region dropped munitions in Syria west of Aleppo against a training camp of the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham group, formerly known as the Al Nusra Front and linked to Al Qaeda.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman said "The removal of this training camp disrupts training operations and discourages hardline Islamist and Syrian opposition groups from joining or cooperating with Al Qaeda on the battlefield."

-- Brendan McGarry contributed to this report.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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