The Washington Post reports that Donald Trump has picked retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to be secretary of defense. Team Trump has not confirmed this report.
Gen. Mattis retired from the military four years ago. Under federal law, defense secretaries must not have been on active duty in the previous seven years. Thus, Congress will be called on to grant an exception for Gen. Mattis, as it did for General George Marshall in 1950.
Shannen Coffin makes a good case that the seven years requirement is unconstitutional. The Constitution vests the President with the sole authority to nominate executive officers of his choosing. The only constitutional limitation is the incompatability clause, which prevents a member of Congress from serving in any “Office of the United States.”
In any event, there’s a good chance that Congress will grant the exception. It’s conceivable that Senate Democrats might filibuster, but it’s not clear what they would gain. If Mattis were blocked, there’s no reason to think Trump would nominate someone the Democrats would like better. Thus, it might be hard to mount a filibuster, given the number of Democrats who must defend their seats in 2018, some in difficult states.
Actually, Democrats should be somewhat reassured by the selection of Gen. Mattis. He has strong ties with NATO, having served for three years as the supreme allied commander of transformation for that organization. He also takes a hard line on Russia. Democrats have criticized Trump (rather hypocritically) for being sympathetic to Putin and ambivalent about NATO.
Mattis is a hardliner on ISIS and Iran. Some Democrats may not like this. However, it’s almost impossible to imagine Trump selecting other than an ISIS/Iran hardliner for Secretary of Defense.
One sticking point for Democrats may be Mattis’s position on women in combat. He has questioned the wisdom of co-ed fighting units, especially in the Marines. Perhaps the Democrats will see an opportunity to appeal to their feminist base by opposing Mattis on this ground.
They may also resent some of the shots Gen. Mattis has taken at administration policy. But again, the Dems can’t realistically expect Trump to select someone who has stood quietly by as President Obama erred, from Trump’s perspective, on major foreign policy, defense policy, and national security issues.
I see little but upside in the selection of Mattis. Like David French, I find nothing not to like in the Washington Post’s account.
My only reservation pertains to terrorist interrogation. Trump, who has favored waterboarding, reports that Mattis gave him pause by saying that beer and cigarettes work better. According to Trump, Mattis told him, “I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.”
Did Mattis interrogate the three hard core terrorists whom the CIA waterboarded? I doubt it. I also doubt that the CIA neglected to try various approaches to establishing rapport with the three before resorting to “torture.”
Note, however, that Mattis’ statement to Trump doesn’t preclude using harsh interrogation methods if beer and cigarettes don’t work. So my reservation is really a quibble.
All in all, this looks like another strong pick for the Cabinet. Time will tell how well Gen. Mattis handles the managerial side of the job. Running the Pentagon is a very tall order. But Mattis has a head start because he knows the military so well and has earned plenty of respect from its leaders.