Retired Gen. James Mattis offered unqualified support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during his Thursday Senate confirmation hearing to serve as Defense Secretary, and accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of trying to break the alliance, which has served as the bedrock of American and European security since 1949.
Mattis was careful not to disparage Donald Trump as senators repeatedly pressed him to answer for the President-elect’s threats to only ensure U.S. protection for NATO allies who fulfilled their financial obligations under the treaty.
The retired general vowed to stand behind NATO “100 percent” when asked by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) how Trump would respond if some member countries don’t “pony up” financial dues.
He called the treaty “vital to our security,” and said he was “confident” that Trump expected his national security team to “live up to our word” in Article 5 of the treaty, which enshrines collective defense.
“My view is that nations with allies thrive and nations without allies don’t,” he said earlier in the hearing in response to a question by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) about his support for the alliance.
Follow along for our coverage of the hearings below through out the day:
Update at 1:07 p.m. The hearing concluded with a committee vote on a waiver to allow Mattis to serve in a civilian role three years after retiring from the military, which passed 24-3. Notably, Mattis was not asked a single question about torture, which he has spoken out against, during the hearing, though other Cabinet nominees fielded such questions.
— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) January 12, 2017
Update at 12:25 p.m. The retired general punted on a question about his support for increased sanctions against Russia that Graham and McCain are pushing in a bill that has bipartisan support. Graham asked Mattis to review the bill and respond in writing about whether they would serve as an effective deterrent to Russia’s interference in U.S. affairs, including the 2016 presidential election.
Update at 11: 17 a.m. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) inquired about the question looming over Mattis’ hearing: how he could commit to maintaining civilian control of the military given his recent retirement from the Marine Corps. Mattis said his military experience helped him understand that civilian leaders develop national security policy, and then military leaders must “stand back and then carry out” that policy “to the best of their ability.”
Update at 10:57 a.m. Sen. Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY), who has made combating sexual assault in the military a policy priority, followed up on a line of questioning from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) about how Mattis sees the role of women in the armed forces. Gillibrand cited past public remarks Mattis has made expressing concern about women serving in combat roles because of the complications caused by sexual relationships between military members. Mattis said he had “no plan to oppose women in any aspect of our military” and that he held a similar stance towards allowing openly LFBT Americans to serve in the armed forces.
Update at 10:43 a.m. McCaskill asked about Mattis’ commitment to allowing women to serve in every military occupational role. Mattis said as long as applicants meet the standards they are expected to meet, “that’s the end of the discussion.”
Update at 10:35 a.m. Retired Gen. James Mattis affirmed at his Thursday Senate confirmation hearing that he believes the United States should honor the nuclear deal with Iran. Responding to a question from Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the Armed Service Committee’s ranking member, Mattis called the nuclear deal “imperfect” but important to regional security.
“When America gives its word we have to live up to it and work with our allies,” he said.
Update at 10:21 a.m. In his opening statement, Mattis said the American military “must remain the best led, the best-equipped and the most lethal in the world.” He affirmed his support for U.S. military personnel and said that he would “provide strong civilian leadership of military plans” if Congress granted a waiver allowing him to serve.
Read his full opening statement below:
Update at 10:16 a.m. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the committee’s ranking member, began his remarks by noting that Mattis will be required to help oversee national security policy “for a president who lacks foreign policy and defense experience and whose temperament is far different than prior presidents.” Reed asked Mattis for assurance that he will push Trump to adopt moderate policies and listen to the advice of the defense community. He also requested confirmation that Mattis still believed that the Iran nuclear deal should be upheld by the next administration, and urged him to consider personnel issues like allowing women in combat roles and alleviating the financial hardship of veterans. Like the officials before him, he expressed concern about Russia’s intervention in Syria and in the U.S. presidential election.
Update at 10:10 a.m. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) testified in a sweeping opening statement that “our nation needs General Mattis’ service more than ever” to address threats like the “breakdown of regional order” in the Middle East, which has allowed for the creation of terrorist groups like ISIL. McCain also warned Mattis about the need to address the prospect of North Korea developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S., and to negotiate a relationship with Russia despite the fact that President Vladimir Putin “wants to be our enemy.”
Update at 9:47 a.m. McCain kicked the hearing off by informing the assembled Senators that 15 minutes before the last question is asked, they will be asked to immediately proceed with consideration of a waiver to allow Mattis to serve in a civilian role despite only retiring from the military three years ago.
McCain then turned the floor over to former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-GA), who returned to Capitol Hill to urge passage of the waiver and assure the Senate that Mattis has spent the last three years “fully engaged in civilian life from the world of business to the NGO world to the college campus.”
Former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen also testified on Mattis’ behalf, saying his nickname “Mad Dog,” to which Trump is so partial, was a misnomer. Cohen said Mattis should instead be known as “Braveheart,” praising his “courage,” intellectualism, and “love for his troops.”
Read Mattis’ answers to questions submitted to the committee before the hearing:
The Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday will hold its confirmation hearing for Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, Donald Trump’s nominee for Defense Secretary.
Because Mattis is respected by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for his four decades of service in the Marine Corps, he is expected to face limited opposition from Democrats during his hearing. The questioning will likely be used as an opportunity to get a sense of where Mattis’ views break with those of the President-elect, and to press him on the importance of civilian control of the military, as he only retired in 2013. There is a mandated seven-year cooling off period between active military service and the ability to lead the Pentagon.
Ahead of Mattis’ confirmation hearing, here are a few issues to watch for.
1. Civilian Military Control: Military officials typically need to be retired for at least seven years before they take on civilian Cabinet roles like Defense Secretary, but Mattis only left the military in 2013. While the House and Senate are both moving forward with legislation to waive that requirement, with the hope of passing it by the end of the week, some lawmakers like Sen. Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY) have declared opposition to granting Mattis an exemption. He initially agreed to take the unusual step of testifying before the House Armed Services Committee as well, but the Trump transition team abruptly canceled his testimony on Wednesday.
Both House Republicans and Democrats were upset about the cancelation, and it is likely to press Senate Republicans to question Mattis more aggressively on the merits of granting him this waiver.
2. Iran Nuclear Deal: Mattis has long taken a hawkish approach towards Iran, declaring last spring that the country represented “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.” Yet he has reluctantly supported the Iran nuclear deal and asserted that the next administration should uphold it, claiming last year that there was “no going back.”
Since Trump has vowed to rip the nuclear deal to shreds, Democrats are likely to ask how he would negotiate his split with the President-elect on this critical issue.
3. Torture: Trump has expressed support for resuming torture tactics used during the Iraq War once he takes office. During the campaign, he said the U.S. needed to bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” when interrogating suspected terrorists.
Mattis has spoken out against waterboarding, telling Trump he “never found it to be useful,” which prompted the President-elect to say he was willing to change his mind on the issue. Democrats and Republicans alike, particularly Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who was tortured during his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, are likely to press Mattis on this topic.