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James Mattis draws little flak at confirmation hearing to head Defense Department

President-elect Donald Trump and retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis.
(Aude Guerrucci / Tribune News Service)

Retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the Pentagon, took little flak at a relatively brief Senate confirmation hearing Thursday that focused in part on his views of social shifts underway in the military.

Mattis signaled that he doesn’t intend to reverse Obama administration decisions that opened combat positions to women, gave gay and lesbian service members protection from discrimination, and lifted bans against transgender men and women serving openly in the military.

“I’ve never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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He also said that civilian control of the military “is a fundamental tenet of the American military tradition,” even though he will need an exemption from the law because of his recent service.

Mattis, 66, retired in 2013 after serving more than four decades in the Marines. Federal law bars anyone from heading the Defense Department who served in the military in the past seven years.

Mattis, a popular figure at the Pentagon and in Congress, received little resistance from committee members during the 3½-hour hearing. The Senate voted 81-17 to approve his waiver and the House is expected to follow suit on Friday. The full Senate is likely to easily approve his confirmation.

Quizzed on his plans to defeat Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, he said the U.S.-led coalition air attacks and other operations that President Obama began in mid-2014 need to be put on “a more aggressive timeline.”

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He described Russia as a “strategic competitor,” not a partner, citing U.S. opposition to Moscow’s aggressive military interventions in Syria and Ukraine.

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has repeatedly praised, is trying to “break” the NATO military alliance created to oppose the Soviet Union during the Cold War and expanded ever since.

The United States, he added, must use “diplomatic, economic, military and alliance steps, working with our allies, to defend ourselves where we must,” Mattis said.

If confirmed, he said he would continue to use military overflights and other tactics to ensure freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where China has engaged in growing territorial and maritime disputes with its neighbors.

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“I believe that we’re going to have to manage that competition between us and China,” he said.

Mattis said the Pentagon must work with other agencies to boost capabilities for cyberwarfare and establish a strategy to deter adversaries from attacking U.S. computer networks.

“I realize it’s a new domain, but that doesn’t give us an excuse not to address it on an urgent basis,” he said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who heads the committee, asked Mattis if the United States has a strong enough military to deter Russia and China. “No, sir,” Mattis, a career Marine, responded.

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“I think it’s under the biggest attack since World War II, sir, and that’s from Russia, from terrorist groups and with what China is doing in the South China Sea,” he said.

Trump has vowed to boost defense spending to build more warships and planes, and to increase the size of the Army, after years of congressional budget cuts and the closing of bases overseas.

Mattis, a retired four-star general, was asked if he foresaw disagreements with Michael Flynn, the retired three-star general whom Trump has picked as his national security advisor. Flynn reportedly opposed the nomination of Mattis for the top Pentagon post.

Mattis replied with a smile that he did not.

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“As you know, you need different ideas to be strongly argued,” he said. “You don’t want the tyranny of consensus, of group-think.”

Saying the Trump Cabinet included a “healthy” mix of rivals, he added, “It’s not tidy. It’ll be respectful, of that I’m certain. And I don’t expect anything but the best ideas will win.”

How Trump’s cabinet picks compare to Obama and Bush’s nominees »

If confirmed, Mattis would be only the second military officer to lead the Pentagon so soon after shedding his uniform.

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In 1950, President Truman nominated Army Gen. George Marshall to head the Defense Department at the outset of the Korean War. Marshall already had served as secretary of State, and Congress granted him the exemption to run the Pentagon.

Both Republicans and Democrats have said Mattis merited an exception, citing his years of service as a combat commander, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mattis, nicknamed “Mad Dog,” is best known for leading Marines in the battle of Fallouja in Iraq in late 2004, when Marines fought house-to-house for six weeks to oust entrenched Sunni insurgents.

The battle saw the heaviest urban combat for U.S. troops since the Vietnam War. More than 90 Americans were killed and nearly 600 were wounded.

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Since retiring, Mattis has served on multiple corporate boards, including U.S. defense giant General Dynamics Corp. and embattled blood-testing company Theranos Inc.

He quit the Theranos board in recent weeks. General Dynamics, maker of nuclear submarines and battle tanks, said in a financial disclosure that Mattis intends to step down from its board if he is confirmed.

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UPDATES:

5:05 p.m.: This article was updated to reflect the Senate voting to grant Mattis a waiver.

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10:40 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from Mattis during his hearing.

This article was originally published at 4 a.m.


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