Support Mounts for Retired Gen. James Mattis as Defense Secretary

Former Pentagon chief Robert Gates calls Donald Trump's pick of Mattis 'terrific'

James Mattis
James Mattis / AP
December 2, 2016

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday that Donald Trump's nomination of retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to the Pentagon's top post was a "terrific" decision, joining the choir of bipartisan voices who back the president-elect's latest Cabinet pick.

Gates, who headed the Defense Department under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told reporters after a meeting with the president-elect at Trump Tower in New York City that while he would not serve in the incoming administration, he was "very supportive" of Mattis' selection.

Mattis, who left the Marine Corps in 2013, will need a waiver from Congress to be able to serve as defense secretary because of a decades-old law that requires former military personnel to have been out of the service for at least seven years before heading the Pentagon. Gates encouraged lawmakers to carve out an exemption for Mattis, the former commander of the U.S. Central Command.

"Normally, I would be concerned about civil-military relationships by having a former senior officer, particularly one so recently in uniform, in that job," Gates told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday. "But Gen. Mattis is so deeply steeped in history and is such a strategic thinker and brings such extraordinary experience to the table, that I think that this would be one time that's worth making an exception."

Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) is so far the only Senate member who has publicly come out against the nomination of the retired four-star general.

Her colleague, Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, called Mattis a "seasoned and capable military officer" who "deserves a full and fair hearing." Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), also had high praise for Mattis, telling Bloomberg last month he would "be a good choice" for defense secretary.

In the House, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN on Thursday he has been "impressed with what I've seen and read about him and his reputation." Schiff continued to praise Mattis as a "very good choice" who would "be very well received." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), meanwhile, said she was "grateful" for Mattis' success in persuading Trump against re-instituting torture methods.

Three weeks after Election Day, Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy, a Democrat who was seen as a top candidate to head the Defense Department under a Hillary Clinton administration, said Mattis would be an "outstanding candidate" to head the Pentagon.

"Gen. Mattis is a storied and much respected military leader. He's a student of history. He's a strategic thinker and he also [has a] real passion for the care of the men and women in the U.S. military and their families," Flournoy told NPR on Nov. 21.

Even some who served in the Obama administration voiced support for Mattis despite the retired general's criticisms of the president's foreign policy dealings, particularly with Iran.

Michael McFaul, the former ambassador to Russia under Obama, praised him as someone who "knows the Russian threat, values our NATO allies, and understands the Russia-Iran-Hezbollah alliance." Steven Simon, who worked alongside Mattis on Obama's National Security Council, told the Washington Post on Thursday that both Israelis and Arabs "respected" the retired general "because they saw him as a straight shooter and a good listener."

Mattis, who served in the military for 44 years, has broad support among Republicans. His nomination is expected to sail through the House, but Senate Democrats could mount a campaign against the retired general to block his nomination. Republicans will need to recruit eight Democrats to meet the 60-vote threshold invoked by Gillibrand to advance toward the confirmation of Mattis as defense secretary.