Mattis was questioned on women, gays in the military
He is expected to have the votes to be confirmed as defense secretary
President-elect Donald Trump’s selection to be defense secretary emerged from his confirmation hearing Thursday with seemingly broad support, after he took a strong posture against Russian President Vladimir Putin and answered tough questions on women and gays in combat.
Ret. Gen. James Mattis also cleared one early procedural hurdle in his confirmation as the Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of giving him a waiver to a law barring military officials from becoming defense secretary within seven years of their military service.
The Senate’s 81-17 vote, following the Senate Armed Services Committee’s bipartisan 24-3 vote, also signaled Mattis would likely face little opposition to his confirmation.
Much of Mattis’ hearing focused on areas where Trump and Mattis might diverge in views.
At the top of the hearing, Mattis took a hard stance against Russia and Putin in answering a question from anti-Russia hawk, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain.
The topic has been one of the greatest sources of Republican criticism of President-elect Donald Trump, who has repeatedly spoken favorably about Putin and for months denied Russia’s role in a hacking and misinformation campaign designed to influence the election.
“I’ve watched three presidents commit themselves to new relationships with Vladimir Putin. All three have been an abysmal failure,” McCain said, asking Mattis what he would do.
“I think right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with (in) Mr. Putin,” Mattis said. “We recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance, and that we take the steps, the integrated steps, diplomatic, economic, military and the alliance steps, working with our allies to defend ourselves where we must.”
He identified Russian aggression, terrorism and Chinese actions in the South China Sea as the biggest security issues since WWII.
“I think deterrence is critical right now, sir, absolutely, and that requires a strong military,” Mattis said, arguing that the US military is not robust enough right now.
He answered similar questions about Moscow from the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island.
“I’m all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality and what Russia is up to,” Mattis said. “There’s a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we’re going to have to confront Russia.”
The topic of NATO was also raised by multiple senators. On the campaign trail, Trump indicated he may reconsider aspects of the US alliance with NATO, alarming lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Mattis, a former supreme allied commander of NATO, voiced unequivocal support for the alliance and said he had said as much to Trump.
“NATO, from my perspective … is the most successful military alliance certainly in modern world history, probably ever,” Mattis said. “I have had discussions with him on this issue. He has shown himself open, even to the point of asking more questions and going deeper into the issue about why I feel so strongly.”
Questions on women, gays in combat
Later, Mattis was peppered with questions about women and gays in the military from several lawmakers.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who has been outspoken on the issue of women in the military and military sexual assault, engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth with Mattis about his position on women and gays in combat – asking him if he would roll back gains on that front.
Mattis repeatedly dodged direct questions about whether he opposes women serving in combat positions or gays in the military, despite Gillibrand reading back his past comments to him.
In one case, she quoted a passage in Mattis’ book, “Warriors and Citizens,” in which he decried the milit