The expected nomination of retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to become secretary of defense differs from other future cabinet nominees in one major respect: Both the House and the Senate would have to advise and consent, since his confirmation depends on a one-time change to federal statutes that require military officers to have been retired for at least seven years before becoming the civilian leader of the Pentagon.
But early reactions from Democratic officeholders who would be in a position to oppose a waiver of that sort seemed to suggest a relatively easy path for Mattis. Some were plain and simple endorsements; others amounted to strong statements of support for his fitness for the job, mixed with some unease about compromising principles of a civilian-controlled military.
“He has proven himself a capable leader on the battlefield and earned a reputation for the kind of strong organizational skills necessary to run the Pentagon and oversee the finest military in the world,” said House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House’s number-two Democrat. “I congratulate him on his appointment, and I also look forward to welcoming Gen. Mattis to military installations throughout Maryland after he is confirmed.”
In her written statement on the nomination, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) harshly criticized Defense and military-related statements President-elect Donald Trump made on the campaign trail, but made no suggestion that Mattis would face serious opposition.
“As Secretary of Defense, General Mattis will have the immense responsibility of improving President Trump’s judgment as Commander-in-Chief,” she said.
By contract, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), did not treat Mattis’ ascendancy to SECDEF as a foregone conclusion, but neither did he hold back in praising the former commander of U.S. Central Command.
“I worked with him personally in the many positions he has held during his service. We have a close personal relationship, and I consider him an outstanding individual and officer,” Smith said in a statement. “He has served the United States tirelessly, with admirable distinction. However… civilian control of the military is not something to be casually cast aside. So while I like and respect General Mattis a great deal, the House of Representatives would have to perform a full review, including hearings by the Armed Services Committee, if it were to consider overriding the statutory prohibition on recent military officers serving as the secretary of Defense.”
For his part, Ashton Carter — the current Obama-appointed secretary who’s held numerous civilian posts over decades of Defense service — praised Mattis without explicitly endorsing an override of the seven-year rule.
“I have known General Jim Mattis for many years and hold him in the highest regard,” Carter said in a statement Friday evening. “I will continue to do everything I can to help ensure a seamless transition at the Department of Defense.”
The notion of drawing bright lines between political and military service so that troops are responsive to democratic processes is arguably as old as the Republic itself, but in legal terms, is certainly as old as the modern-day Defense Department: The National Security Act of 1947 that created DoD also set a 10-year waiting period before any former officer could serve as Defense secretary (Congress amended the law a decade ago to shorten that period to seven years).
Mattis wouldn’t be the first exception: Congress waived the then-new rule to let President Harry Truman give Gen. George Marshall the secretary post at the outset of the Korean War, but that remains the only case in which the waiting period has been bypassed.
Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who served on the Republican transition planning team prior to the election but whose preference among his party’s candidates was not Trump, said the civil-military division was vital and should not be violated except in the narrowest of circumstances.
But he said Mattis was among a vanishingly small category of former generals for whom an override was appropriate.
“He is one of the few officers who I’d be comfortable with assuming that role” Rogers said. “I say that after talking with a lot of other generals who’ve cautioned me about the fact that it takes a lot of time to grow a general, and they come out of the military with certain ideas about how they country ought to go. But he’s a brilliant strategist and an internationalist. The idea that you hire a general just to go break things is counterintuitive when you meet a guy like this, even though he’s also a fierce warrior. I don’t think he has a TV in his house, but he has 10,000 books, and those are just the ones he’s decided to keep after reading them.”