Mattis Breaks With Trump on Russia, NATO

Mattis Breaks With Trump on Russia, NATO
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Gen. James Mattis broke sharply with President-elect Donald Trump on Russia and NATO during his confirmation hearing Thursday to be the next defense secretary.

The retired Marine officer said Washington had put a great deal of effort into trying to improve relations with Moscow in recent years, with little to show for it. He also put Russia atop the list of “principal threats” to U.S. interests. His comments appeared to align more with the sentiments of the Armed Services Committee’s chairman, Sen. John McCain, who has strongly disagreed with Trump on how the United States should deal with Russia.

“I think right now, the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with in Mr. Putin and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance and we take the integrated steps — diplomatic, economic, military and the alliance steps, working with our allies — to defend ourselves where we must,” Mattis said.

Sen. Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the committee, also pressed Mattis on whether it would be wise to follow Trump’s repeated assertions, both during the campaign and afterwards, that the U.S. should collaborate with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria. Mattis answered that Russia “has chosen to be a strategic competitor” and an “adversary.”

“I’m all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality and what Russia is up to,” he said. “There is 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."

A day earlier during his first news conference since the election, Trump continued to say it would be a plus to develop a positive relationship with Putin, and repeated that “Russia can help us fight ISIS.”

“If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks, that's called an asset, not a liability,” Trump said. “Now, I don't know that I'm going to get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do. But there's a good chance I won't.”

In addition to his comments on Russia, Mattis broke with the president-elect when asked broadly about the intelligence community, saying that he had worked closely with them throughout his time in the military and that he has “a very, very high degree of confidence in our intelligence community."

Mattis’ hard line on Russia was particularly noteworthy the day after Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, faced tough questioning from Republicans and Democrats over his views on the same subject.

Mattis faced some tough questioning from senators, most notably from Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., over previous comments he made about women serving in combat roles. But overall, he appeared to assuage concerns committee members had about Trump’s looming foreign policy.

Mattis’ nomination is considered one of Trump’s least controversial on Capitol Hill and he’s likely to be easily confirmed. The committee voted 24-3 to approve a waiver allowing Mattis -- a four-star general with four decades of experience in the Marine Corps -- to serve as defense secretary despite not being seven years removed from military service, as law requires. The entire Senate later approved it by a vote of 81-17; if passed by the full Congress, it would be just the second time such a waiver was granted in U.S. history. 

Mattis, who led U.S. Central Command from 2010 until 2013, outlined his priorities for the military should he be confirmed. In his opening statement, he lamented the status of military readiness because of budget constraints and said he would work to strengthen that weakness, as well as collaboration with allies, and would instill budget discipline.

Asked by McCain whether the military was strong enough to deal with the myriad threats it faces around the world, he emphatically said no. He added that world order is under more strain than at any time since World War II “from Russia, from terrorist groups, and with what China is doing in the South China Sea."

Reed asked pointedly for Mattis’ views on the Iran Nuclear Agreement. Trump consistently criticized the pact during the presidential campaign, even saying it should be ripped up, though he also said in September that the U.S. had a “contract,” and that he would renegotiate it. Despite the unpopularity of the deal among Republicans in Congress, Mattis said the U.S. should stand by it.

“I think it is an imperfect arms control agreement,” he said. “It’s not a friendship treaty. But when America gives its word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies."

Later, when questioned more directly by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Mattis clarified, “It’s not a deal I would have signed."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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