They sought assurances he will stand behind the Iranian nuclear deal and offer ‘frank advice’ to the new president.
James Mattis is the one Donald Trump Cabinet pick whom Democrats could unilaterally block. Instead, they made clear Thursday their resounding support for the retired Marine Corps general, touting him as their best hope for reining in a president-elect who has unorthodox views on matters of war and peace.
Mattis sailed through his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, fielding mostly gentle questions and easily sidestepping the few attempts by senators to trip him up.
Immediately after the session, which lasted just over three hours, the panel voted to exempt Mattis from a law barring military officers from serving as defense secretary until they’ve been out of uniform seven years.
The full House and Senate are expected to approve the measure — which will require 60 votes in the Senate, meaning Mattis will need Democratic support — by week’s end. This all but assures Mattis will be quickly and easily confirmed as Pentagon chief soon after Trump’s inauguration.
Here are some takeaways from a smooth confirmation hearing in which Mattis showcased why many lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — consider him one of Trump’s strongest Cabinet selections:
Senators are counting on him as a check on Trump
Democrats — and even some Republicans — made clear to Mattis they expect him to be a check on Trump and his White House national security team.
“Does your belief in the importance of frank advice extend to the relationship between the defense secretary and the president’s other national security advisers?” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) asked Trump.
“Absolutely, senator. I would not have taken this nomination if I didn’t have that belief,” Mattis responded.
“And what about the president himself?” Warren continued in her line of questioning. “Under what circumstances will you advocate for your views forcefully and frankly?”
“On every circumstance, senator,” Mattis said.
Democrats also tried to pin down Mattis on issues where they’re concerned the Trump administration will roll back Obama-era policies.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) brought up Mattis’ past statements that the Iranian nuclear deal should not be ripped up, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) pressed Mattis on keeping the Obama administration’s move to open up all combat positions to women.
Republicans weren’t as explicit in calling on Mattis to push back against Trump, but it was implicit in many exchanges.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) spent a chunk of his opening statement laying out why Trump’s overtures to Russia were mistaken, and then pushed Mattis to state his support for a permanent U.S. military presence in the Baltics.