Authors : REBECCA KHEEL AND KATIE BO WILLIAMS
Posted : 02/19/17 the Hill
Defense Secretary James Mattis’s influence in the Trump administration appears to be growing.
Mattis has seen a potential rival for Trump’s ear on national security fall to the side in Michael Flynn, the adviser asked to resign this week for misleading Vice President Pence and others about his conversations with Russia.
And while the national security advisor job sits empty, Mattis appears to be in a prime spot to assert his influence — something being recognized on Capitol Hill.
“Certainly right now, he’s the only one who has the credentials and who is in a strong position,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said.
The Senate’s 98-1 vote to confirm Mattis gave the secretary clout and reflected the respect lawmakers in both parties have for the former military commander.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has been critical of Trump, has praised Mattis.
Trump also respects his defense secretary, saying Mattis would “override” him on the issue of the use of torture.
Mattis allies have been placed in key positions of the administration.
The Pentagon chief’s preferred choice for Navy secretary, Philip Bilden, was nominated to the job over Trump’s initial choice.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, a fellow general who also served under Mattis in Iraq, is another ally.
And while retired Vice Admiral Bob Harward turned down the job of replacing Flynn, the fact that he was asked speaks well of Mattis.
It appears Mattis is being given the latitude to express his views even if they contrast with Trump’s.
At a NATO meeting in Brussels on Thursday, Mattis doubled down on his comments about Russia’s meddling in elections — striking a different tone than the commander-in-chief.
“There’s very little doubt that they have either interfered or they have attempted to interfere in a number of elections in the democracies,” Mattis said when asked about Russian interference in the U.S. election.
By contrast, Trump tweeted Thursday that “the Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly (306), so they made up a story – RUSSIA. Fake news!”
With Harward turning down the job of national security advisor, those now in the running reportedly include retired Gens. Keith Kellogg, David Petraeus, Keith Alexander and James Jones.
One Republican shrugged aside questions about Mattis’s power being on the rise, saying he was influential from the minute Trump picked him.
“I think Mattis had a pretty strong influence anyway,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said Thursday.
Democrats and some Republicans have long seen Mattis as a potential moderating influence in a Trump administration that includes Stephen Bannon, the White House strategist with a military background who was recently named as a principal of the National Security Council (NSC).
Mattis has reportedly clashed with Bannon over staffing choices in the Pentagon’s policy shop. And Bannon is thought to be the principal architect behind Trump’s controversial travel ban order — widely criticized even on the right over a chaotic and apparently poorly-planned roll-out — which Mattis reportedly did not see until just hours before Trump signed it.
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, argued that someone with military experience will understand the difference and give the Pentagon more latitude to carry out its mission.
“I don’t know about the influence, but I do get the sense that these folks who have served in the military understand a chain of command, and that’s a good thing,” Thornberry said.
“Any of them have got to be better than what we experienced where these NSC staffers were calling to airfields in Afghanistan asking about the fuel levels in the planes out there. It was completely out of control.”
Some Pentagon officials —including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates — under President Obama had complained of the “controlling nature” of the president’s national security team.
Thornberry was vocal during the Obama administration of what he and others say was “micromanaging” of the military by the NSC. To respond to that issue, last year’s defense policy bill included a provision requiring the NSC staff to slim down from 400 to 200.
“I think there has been enough bipartisan concern over the operations of the Obama administration NSC that we’re not going back to the bad,” he said. “And so regardless of the individuals who may be in place, people recognize that was way out of control.”
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he’ll be paying “a lot” of attention to the relationship between the NSC and the Pentagon as the new national security advisor is selected.
“We don’t get a confirmation vote on that, so we have to pay a lot of attention through the secretary of State and the secretary of Defense to make sure that they’re getting the respect that they deserve,” he said. “But I think Gen. Mattis is very, very strong.”