Today’s Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing for Retired Marine General James Mattis was probably easier than anyone expected. Top-ranking Democrats—including Hillary Clinton’s running mate—apparently want the Mattis-Trump marriage to succeed, if only for the sake of what they see as future damage control.
Mattis broke with Trump on a couple of major questions. Unlike the incoming president, Mattis is no Putin enthusiast nor a NATO-basher.
“Right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with with Mr. Putin and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance,” Mattis said today. Perhaps Trump can be convinced on these issues—at the very least, he might tolerate having a dissenter in the upper ranks of his cabinet.
During today’s hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee member and losing vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine cited “concerns about the incoming administration” as one of his reasons for voting to grant Mattis a waiver allowing him to serve as Defense Secretary before a Congressionally-mandated seven-year waiting period for high-ranking retired military officials expired. Even Clinton’s running mate is willing to leapfrog the existing law if it meant putting Mattis at President Trump’s side (most, but not all, of Kaine’s democratic colleagues agreed. The committee endorsed giving Mattis the waiver in a 24-3 vote today.)
The testimony itself ran for a brisk 3 hours, a brevity that spoke to how non-controversial Mattis’s nomination has proved to be (Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson was grilled for about eight hours, while U.S. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions’s hearings lasted for two days).
Mattis is likely to breeze through the rest of the confirmation process, and the hearing was less interesting for what it said about him than what it said about his boss-to-be: the incoming commander-in-chief of the most powerful military in the world, and someone whose actual policy views are, alas, still something of a mystery even nine days before his inauguration.
In areas where there were obvious differences in view with Trump, Mattis predictably tried to downplay or deny them. “I’m confident the president-elect believes that NATO obligates us to live up to Article V,” Mattis said, when asked about Trump’s statements that he might not honor the U.S.’s treaty commitments. “I hope you’re right,” one senator replied.
Hawkish, one-time Never Trump Republican Lindsay Graham asked Mattis how his views differed with Trump’s on Putin. “I’m not sure where it differs,” Mattis said. “My view is that he’s a strategic operator and an adversary in key areas. I go along with the president-elect saying he wants to have an engagement there. Even in our worst years of the Cold War we still engaged with the Soviet Union, for example, but I have very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin.”
So maybe there are some more real fissures here. In one of the most surprising turns of the day—and a potential early data point in the coming GOP civil war, assuming Trump’s presidency crashes and burns—the most withering questioning of the hearing came Graham, who tried to contrast Mattis’s views to some of Trump’s more unhinged national security-related tweets.
Did Mattis agree that North Korea wouldn’t be allowed to develop an ICBM, as Trump tweeted on January 2nd, and what did the president-elect’s statement that this “won’t happen” mean in practicality? The missiles are “A serious issue,” Mattis said, adding that he “wouldn’t take anything off the table,” response-wise.
And what about the Iran nuclear deal, whose days were potentially numbered, according to Trump’s Twitter feed? Mattis said the U.S. shouldn’t pull out of the deal, but said the executive branch should subject the agreement to more rigorous oversight.
Most awkwardly, Graham began his line of questioning with a classic trick question—asking Mattis what the capital of Israel is. Tel Aviv, Mattis replied, saying he would “defer to the U.S. policy” on that matter.
This is the literal correct answer according to the U.S.’s position on the question, but a controversial one. Israel sees its capital as Jerusalem, though the Palestinians consider it to be the capital of a future state. So Mattis’ answer is also not the answer that the government of Israel, or many of its supporters in the U.S.—including Trump’s incoming ambassador to the country—would give.
As for the F-35, which Trump has declared he wants to “cancel?” Mattis declared it “critical” because of its capabilities, but even more than that, its cancellation would raise an even bigger diplomatic question. “It’s an all-in sort of situation,” he said, noting that a lot of American allies that have bought into the program have now “bet their aerial superiority” on its success.
And what about LGBTQ personnel serving in the military? “I’ve never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with,” Mattis said, which is a nice thing to say, but is neither an acknowledgement of the colossal failure of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, nor could it be much when it comes to people like incoming Vice President Mike Pence, who has been hostile to the gay community.
One issue pervading the hearing was whether someone of Mattis’s experience and sobriety could survive the potentially circus-like character of the incoming administration. It’s a bit of a toss-up. During the hearing, Mattis reminded the Senators that he’s the kind of military man who can quote Thucydides without it seeming the least bit forced (take note: “fear, honor, and interest” are at the root of why nations go to war, according to the ancient Athenian chronicler). In contrast, Donald Trump has probably heard of Thucydides, or perhaps studied him at Penn, a school that only smart people attend.
But the best indication of how Mattis’s time in the Pentagon could shake out came about 225 miles from the hearing room. Around the same time as Mattis’s testimony, Marine Le Pen, the far right-wing candidate for the French presidency and someone whose is allegedly being sustained with loans from a bank close to Vladimir Putin, visited Trump Tower, where the president-elect also happened to be at the time.
Trump was entertaining a notable Putinist at the exact moment that one of his most admired and qualified cabinet picks insisted on his future boss’s possible skepticism towards the Russian president.
Armin Rosen is a New York-based writer and editor who has reported from throughout Africa and the Middle East.