Early in Thursday’s Senate confirmation hearings for Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s pick for secretary of defense, Sen. Jack Reed asked something that, for most Trump nominees, would be a tough question: What do you think about working with Russia to solve problems?
Mattis’s answer was blunt, and very un-Trumplike.
“I’m all for engagement, but we have to recognize reality,” the general said. “There are a decreasing number of areas where we can cooperate, and an increasing number of areas in which we will have to confront Russia.”
The answer more-or-less directly contradicted the president-elect, who believes that he can make “a deal” with Vladimir Putin. It was also a dynamic that happened again and again. To take just two examples: Mattis voiced support for keeping the Iran nuclear deal in place and refused to endorse moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. If you just listened to Mattis talk, and had no idea who the president-elect was, you probably would have assumed that his boss was a relatively hawkish Democrat.
You would have thought, in short, that Hillary Clinton won the election.
But she didn’t. And Mattis — who’s so sure to be confirmed that Sen. Lindsey Graham jokingly referred to him “Mr. Secretary” — will soon have to work for a president whose instincts may diverge with his at nearly every turn.
Mattis’s confirmation will be a breeze. The hard work will start after he takes office.
Mattis aced his hearing — by throwing Trump under the bus
The first senator on the Armed Services committee to question Mattis, Chair John McCain, started with an open-ended question: “What do you think we ought to do about Russia?”
In response, Mattis took a hard line. He accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of attempting to destroy the NATO alliance, for decades the cornerstone of America’s Europe policy, and argued for putting that insight at the center of US policy toward Moscow.
“The most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with Mr. Putin, and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” Mattis told McCain. Mattis went on to call NATO “the most successful alliance in modern history, and maybe ever,” and said that his list of threats to the US “starts with Russia.”
Trump, of course, famously sees Putin as a like-minded leader with whom he can do business. He mused about NATO being “irrelevant,” and suggested that Washington would break its treaty obligation to defend its NATO allies in the event of a Russian invasion, which would effectively destroy the organization.
When asked, later, if he had spoken with Trump on these issues, Mattis said yes (unlike other Trump nominees). He wouldn’t say, interestingly, that Trump agreed with him. But he did say that Trump listened to him on Russia and NATO.
“I would not have taken this job if I do not believe the president-elect would be open to my opinion on this or any other matter,” he said.
Again and again, senators pressed Mattis on Trump’s positions, and Mattis simply asserted his own, oft-contrary opinion. When Reed asked about the Iran deal, which Trump has threatened to tear up on day one, Mattis argued for keeping it.
“I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement,” Mattis allowed, “but when America gives her word, we’ve got to live up to it.”
When asked about Trump’s continued attacks on the US intelligence community in the wake of its assessment that Russia hacked the 2016 election to help Trump win the White House, Mattis backed up the IC. “I had a close relationship with the intelligence community … and I have a very high degree of confidence in [them],” he said.
The closest Mattis came to getting in trouble came when Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York pressed him on his prior opposition to open service by LGBTQ service members and women in combat. Mattis said he wasn’t looking to change things, but hemmed and hawed about his past statements, seemingly not wanting to admit he had made a mistake.
The issue cleared up when Sen. Mazie Hirono asked him, point blank, whether he thought being a woman or LGBTQ would prevent someone from serving in the military effectively. Mattis simply said “no,” and that was the end of it.
The contrast with Trump’s other top foreign policy appointee couldn’t have been more stark
The senators were so relieved by Mattis’s willingness to countermand Trump that it was practically palpable.
The “common theme of #Mattis hearing is welcome relief that he will be a check on Trump in foreign policy, strategy and use of force,” Mackenzie Eaglen, a foreign policy analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, tweeted during the hearing.
Contrast this with yesterday’s marathon hearing for Trump’s secretary of state pick, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Tillerson faced a barrage of hostile questions from senators, including several from his own party. After the hearing, Sen. Marco Rubio — the committee’s most important swing vote — suggested that he was open to voting no on Tillerson’s confirmation.
What was the key difference? Whether the senators felt they could trust the nominee to be a check on Trump.
The most telling issue, in both cases, is Russia. Mattis is a tough-talking general with a history of literally killing people who posed threats to the United States. His past statements on Russia were harshly critical of Putin’s foreign policy. The senators were all inclined to believe him when he said he wants to stand up to the Kremlin.
Tillerson, by contrast, has personally struck hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of deals with Vladimir Putin. In 2013, he received the Order of Friendship medal from Putin in Moscow, one of its highest awards for foreign citizens, and then publicly opposed the imposition of sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine the next year. Senators were deeply skeptical of Tillerson’s willingness to take a hard line on the Kremlin, and grilled him on it — resulting in a series of devastating exchanges on Exxon’s history of lobbying against sanctions legislation.
The key difference in the tenor of the hearings, then, was senators’ trust in the nominee to stand up to Trump. The president-elect has taken positions, particularly on Russia and NATO but also on other things like the US-Japan alliance, that are really far outside the consensus that dominates both parties. Senators are worried that Trump, as a result of malice or incompetence, will tear away at agreements they see as forming the foundation of both American national security and the stability of the entire world.
What they want in a Trump appointment is reassurance — a sense that there’s an adult in the room who can put a damper on Trump’s wildest instincts. Mattis’s repeated willingness to buck his boss was exactly what the doctor ordered.
For Mattis, the Senate is the easy part
That Mattis will be confirmed seems obvious. More than one senator began their questions with effusive praise for Mattis and his service record.
“I have been honored to know you for 30 years,” Sen. Jim Inhofe told the witness he was nominally questioning. “I’m so excited that you can do this.”
But that’s where Mattis’s problems start. Being an uncompromising, principled person working for Donald Trump is a risky bet. Trump tends to lash out, viciously, at anyone who dares to contradict him. Is he likely to tolerate that from one of his top subordinates?
That’s hard to say, but there are already some signs of trouble. The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reports that the Mattis and Trump teams have been feuding fighting over who gets the top staff positions in the Department of Defense:
Behind the scenes, Mattis has been rejecting large numbers of candidates offered by the transition team for several top posts, two sources close to the transition said. The dispute over personnel appointments is contributing to a tenser relationship between Mattis and the transition officials, which could set the stage for turf wars between the Pentagon and the White House in the coming Trump administration.
The most notable such incident, according to Rogin’s sources, was the appointment of the secretary of the Army. Trump picked a billionaire army vet named Vincent Viola for the job — apparently without giving Mattis a say.
“Mattis was furious,” an anonymous source “close to the transition” told Rogin. “It made him suspicious of the transition team, and things devolved from there.”
We don’t know that Rogin’s source has it right here, but it would make a lot of sense. Mattis has a reputation as a non-ideological professional: Someone whose foremost commitment is to the quality of the US military as an institution rather than an ideological left-or-right perspective on foreign affairs. His preferred picks for deputies would likely be technocrats chosen because of their knowledge and experience, not their party affiliation or past willingness to support Trump.
Trump, by contrast, seems to favors deputies distinguished by their personal loyalty to Trump, and not any objective metrics of expertise. For one glaring example, look no further than another Trump nominee undergoing a confirmation hearing Thursday: Ben Carson, a physician with no experience in government, who the president-elect chose to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
There’s one Trump pick in particular that will give Mattis heartburn: retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the president-elect’s choice for national security adviser.
Flynn is a deeply partisan figure who spent the end of his government career in nearly open revolt against his military and civilian bosses. Flynn’s well-documented temper, history of Islamophobia, and belief in conspiracy theories couldn’t be further from Mattis’s temperament and worldview. Flynn was also reprimanded for mishandling classified information while working for Mattis during the latter’s stint running the military’s Central Command. It seems unlikely that the two men will be able to co-exist for long, particularly if Flynn tries to micromanage the Pentagon or push Trump toward positions Mattis would see as dangerous.
In short, then, Mattis could soon find himself confronting his boss and another foreign policy principal on everything from staffing to big-picture policy questions. It’ll be interesting to see how the three men can establish a working relationship — if they manage to put one together at all.