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Senate panel meets this week on Mattis waiver, confirmation

President-elect Donald Trump shakes hands with retired Gen. James Mattis at the clubhouse of Trump International Golf Club, November 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, N.J.

AUDE GUERRUCCI/SIPA USA/TNS

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 9, 2017

WASHINGTON — Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis will get his shot this week to convince senators that he should be Donald Trump’s defense secretary.

The retired Marine general will testify Thursday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which could make a recommendation on his nomination and tee it up for a final Senate vote this month.

Mattis, 66, will almost certainly face questions about the Russian election hacking and how his positions on defense align with the brash-talking Trump. He might also be grilled by Democrats on the committee who worry about a recently retired general taking over the Pentagon’s top civilian role.

To become defense secretary, Mattis will need a special waiver from Congress because he has not been out of active-duty for at least seven years. The Senate committee planned to hold a hearing Tuesday, ahead of the confirmation hearing, on civilian control of the military.

Still, the general’s nomination was shaping up as a relatively easy sell, despite the concerns, and Republicans were hoping he could be confirmed right after Trump takes office Jan. 20.

Trump called the retired general, who has cultivated a reputation as a warrior monk, “the closest thing we have to Gen. George Patton of our time.”

Mattis, who commanded infantry troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, remains widely popular among lawmakers and troops. He spent last week meeting with senators on the Armed Services Committee and drew praise from Republicans such as Ted Cruz of Texas and Joni Ernst, a combat veteran from Iowa.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., are likely to raise tough questions for Mattis over the Russian interference in the presidential election following a hearing last week with top U.S. intelligence officials that underscored the cyber threat. Russian President Vladimir Putin waged a campaign through hacking and propaganda aimed to influence the election in Trump’s favor, according to an unclassified report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released Friday.

Mattis has been firm against Russia in the past, calling it a “predatory state” that destroys the sovereignty of other countries in an August article that he co-authored. But Trump has called for a warming of Russia relations, tweeting last week that only “stupid” people oppose such a move.

The possible divide could put the general in the difficult position of clashing with his future president during sworn testimony to the Senate committee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell upped the pressure Sunday during an interview on Meet the Press. He said Mattis is not in “any way conflicted about the view that the Russians are not our friends and are a big problem.”

But Mattis must first get over the special waiver hurdle. The general retired in 2013 and needs the waiver from Congress exempting him from a law requiring any defense secretary to have been out of active-duty service for at least seven years.

The law is meant to create a firewall to ensure the military remains under civilian control. If confirmed, Mattis, who was commander of U.S. Central Command before retiring, would be the first defense secretary to receive a waiver since Gen. George C. Marshall served as secretary in the early 1950s.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has steadfastly opposed the waiver and other Democrats have voiced concern.

Another Democrat on the committee, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said he was impressed by Mattis during a meeting last week. But Blumenthal also said civilian military control is a “bedrock principle critical to our democracy” and will carefully weigh whether a waiver is appropriate.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis testifies at a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 18, 2014, as former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker looks on.
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