James Mattis' confirmation hearing for defense secretary -- live blog

Last Updated Jan 12, 2017 12:54 PM EST

James Mattis is testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing to become defense secretary under President-elect Donald Trump. After the hearing, the committee is expected to vote to give an exception to a limitation against an appointment for defense secretary within seven years of relief from active duty.

Mattis served as commander of U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command from 2007 to 2010 and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander of Transformation from 2007 to 2009.


12:50 p.m. All Republicans and most Democrats voted in favor of the waiver except Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts. Gillibrand and Warren could be possible 2020 presidential contenders.

12:34 p.m. The hearing has adjourned and now the committee is about to vote on the waiver for Mattis.

12:31 p.m. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, asked Mattis about whether he agrees with Mr. Trump about his statements on Putin. Mattis said he agrees with the president-elect’s desire “to have an engagement there,” which he said even happened in the midst of the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

“I have very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin,” Mattis said.

12:15 p.m. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, asked Mattis what he believes the capital of Israel is. 

“The capital of Israel, sir, is Tel Aviv because that’s where all of the government people are,” Mattis said.

Asked if Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, Mattis deflected and said he is sticking with longstanding, current U.S. policy which is that the U.S. does not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. 

Graham asked Mattis if he would support increasing sanctions against Russia and Mattis said he’d like to meet with the new national security team and “craft a strategy to confront Russia.”

12:01 p.m. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a 2016 GOP presidential candidate, said that Mattis will be an “extraordinary defense secretary” and that he’s proud to support him. Cruz predicted that he would be confirmed in a “strong, bipartisan vote.”

11:58 a.m. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate, asked Mattis if the U.S. military should offer to provide security assistance as part of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. 

“I’d have to look at the specific commitment,” Mattis said. “I don’t have a going-in prohibition to engaging along those lines.” 

Asked if it would be an appropriate use of the U.S. military, which would be similar to the assistance provided on the Israel-Egypt border, Mattis said, “If we can contribute, certainly, it’s something we should look at.”

11:54 a.m. Mattis agreed that the greatest threat to national security is the government’s growing national debt and he said he will “support strongly” senators who are trying to repeal sequestration.

11:40 a.m. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, brings up Russia’s efforts to build up their military in the Arctic and said that Putin has filled a vacuum left by the U.S. Mattis is asked what the effect is of the U.S. not being actively engaged in that region.

Mattis said that it’s “not to our advantage” to leave any of those areas of the world where U.S. efforts are absent. Asked what Russia is trying to achieve in the Arctic, Mattis said, “I don’t know” and he added that the U.S. must ensure that Russia doesn’t expand those efforts to dominate the region.

Mattis is also asked if he agrees with Chinese officials saying that they’re not militarizing the South China Sea.

“No, I do not,” he said.

11:30 a.m. Mattis said that the “principal threat” facing the U.S. is Russia.

11:24 a.m. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, asked Mattis about the plan to defeat ISIS. He said that the U.S. must “deliver a very hard blow against ISIS in the Middle East.”

Mattis said it must be an “integrated strategy” so that “you don’t squeeze them in one place and they develop in another.” The strategy, he said, should focus on their recruiting, fundraising and it must deliver a military blow in the Middle East.

11:22 a.m. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked Mattis if there’s something innate in being a woman or being LGBT that would cause him to believe they shouldn’t be part of a lethal force.

“No,” Mattis replied.

Hirono asked how he plans to deal with Mr. Trump’s tweets and she alluded to previous tweets he has posted on defense contracts.

“It’s not my role to comment on the president-elect’s statements other than to say it shows he’s serious about getting the best bang for the dollar,” Mattis said.

11:06 a.m. In an exchange with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, Mattis said he plans to address the issues of “post-traumatic stress” that servicemembers and veterans can experience. 

“This cuts to the very heart of any of us who have ordered troops into harm’s way,” Mattis said. “You have my full commitment on this.”

Blumenthal expressed concern about giving Mattis a waiver to serve because the Democratic senator said that civilian control of the military has gone back to the founding of the republic. 

“If there were ever a case for a waiver...it is you in this moment in our history,” Blumenthal said.

10:57 a.m. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, asked Mattis about the Pentagon’s decision to open up infantry positions to women and whether he plans to roll back that policy. 

“Senator, I’ve never come into any job with an agenda, a pre-formed agenda,” Mattis said. 

Gillibrand said that Mattis had made previous statements opposing that decision, but Mattis said he made those remarks when he was not in a position to return to the government. 

“I’m not coming in looking for problems,” Mattis said, adding that he’s looking for ways to ensure the department is at its “most lethal stance.”

Pressed again on whether he plans to oppose women in combat positions, Mattis said, “I have no plan to oppose women in any aspect of our military.”

Gillibrand asked Mattis if openly serving gay servicemembers are undermining U.S. forces. He said that he believes the U.S. must stay focused on a military that’s so lethal that it would be the worst day for enemies on the battlefield. 

“I’ve never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with,” he added.

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Retired U.S. Marine Corps General James Mattis testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to serve as defense secretary in Washington, U.S. January 12, 2017.

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

10:51 a.m. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, asked Mattis about the lack of a cyber policy. He said that it’s important to make clear what the U.S. stands for and what it won’t tolerate in the cyber realm. He said putting together a cyber policy is not something the Pentagon can do alone and that it must work together with the Treasury Department, Commerce Department and Homeland Security Department. 

Mattis said that the nation’s cyber policy must be addressed on “an urgent basis.”

10:44 a.m. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, asked Mattis about the importance of maintaining NATO and if he’s concerned with Mr. Trump’s previous comments on the alliance. 

Mattis called NATO “the most successful military alliance, probably in modern history, maybe ever.” He stressed it’s important to “maintain the strong possible relationship with NATO.” Mattis dodged questions about whether he’s concerned with the president-elect’s remarks, except he said Mr. Trump has “shown himself to be open.”

10:37 a.m. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, asked Mattis about the Obama administration’s decision to abstain on the vote on the United Nations Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. 

“I’d have to get back and look at that,” said Mattis, who said that he only has read about it in the newspaper. “I don’t have an authoritative view of that right now.”

Mattis emphasized that the U.S. must promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians. 

“I think we’ve got to restore a better relationship with Israel and with our Arab allies,” he said. 

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Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis (R) talks with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) prior to a committee hearing on Mattis' nomination to serve as defense secretary., on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017.

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

10:32 a.m. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, asked Mattis about the overseas contingency operations (OCO) fund that the Pentagon has relied on to fund overseas military operations like fighting ISIS, which falls outside budget caps. 

Mattis said that the Defense Department, under his leadership, would propose what is needed for OCO and the base budget at the department. He said his desire is for “everything to be in the base budget” and then to come to Congress when there are emergencies, but admitted, “We are not in a position to dictate that.”

10:26 a.m. Reed has begun questioning Mattis, who said he has “very, very high degree of confidence in our intelligence community.” 

This comes after President-elect Donald Trump had repeatedly questioned the intelligence community’s findings on Russian interference in the election.

10:17 a.m. McCain has begun questioning Mattis and asked if he believes the Pentagon has a plan to regain control of Raqqa.

“I believe we do, sir,” Mattis said, but added that he believes that strategy needs to be reviewed and possibly “energized on a more aggressive timeline.”

McCain asked what the U.S. should do to combat Russian aggression in the Baltics and in eastern Ukraine. Mattis said that the U.S. has tried to engage positively with Russia in the past, but it’s a short list of successes. He said that Putin is trying to dismantle NATO and that the U.S. should take diplomatic, military and joint action with alliances to “defend ourselves.” Mattis said that deterrence is necessary to fight Russia.

Asked if the U.S. military is strong enough to defend against the many threats in the world, Mattis said, “No.”

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Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, during the committee's confirmation hearing for Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

10:10 a.m. Mattis is delivering his opening statement, naming Russia among some of the major threats facing the U.S. He said his nomination was a surprise as he was enjoying life west of the Rockies. 

“If the Senate consents and if the full Congress passes an exception to the seven-year requirement, I will provide strong civilian leadership of military plans and decisions. I recognize under the Constitution it is the Congress that raises, sustains, and supports our Armed Forces through annual authorizations and appropriations,” Mattis said. 

“I am mindful of the extraordinary privilege it is to be nominated for this position. I will hold service members, civilians, and their families foremost in my thoughts and work to give them the best chance for victory if you confirm me.”

Mattis said his top priorities would be military readiness, reforming the Defense Department and strengthening international alliances. 

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Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis appears before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to serve as U.S. defense secretary., on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 12, 2017.

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

10:00 a.m. Reed has begun his opening statement and said that Mattis, if confirmed, would lead the department when the U.S. faces many complex and multifaceted challenges. 

Reed named Iran, North Korea and Russia as threats and strategic challenges. He said he’s interested in hearing from Mattis what his vision is to improve U.S. cyber defenses. 

He said he supports the move by Defense Secretary Ash Carter to open up combat positions and other positions in the military to women.

9:49 a.m. McCain said that members of the panel will consider legislation after the hearing to pass a statutory waiver to allow Mattis to serve as defense secretary. He has now begun his opening statement.

McCain slammed the Obama administration for creating a “perception around the world that America is weak and distracted,” which he said has only emboldened America’s enemies. He talked about the threat of radical Islamic terrorism and said that the U.S. will be “engaged in a global conflict of varying scope and intensity for the foreseeable future.” 

“You would lead a military at war,” McCain said to Mattis. 

McCain added that the central challenge in the Middle East is not the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but a breakdown in regional order and the terror group, he said, is a symptom of that. 

McCain also emphasized that Russia poses a threat to the U.S. and that it never wants to be America’s friend. He said the U.S. must “build a position of national strength against Russia” and must “re-establish deterrence.” 

“Each of our last three presidents has had great expectations of building a partnership with the Russian government. Each attempt has failed, not for lack of good faith and effort on the U.S. side, but because of a stubborn fact that we must finally recognize: Putin wants to be our enemy. He needs us as his enemy. He will never be our partner, including in fighting ISIL. He believes that strengthening Russia means weakening America. We must proceed realistically on this basis,” McCain said.

He also said that sequestration has caused, over the last five years, for national defense spending to be “arbitrarily capped,” which he said has damaged military readiness.

“The Budget Control Act is harming us in ways that our enemies can only dream,” said McCain, who said it must be repealed. 

McCain said that the U.S. needs Mattis to lead the Pentagon and that over the last several years, he’s witnessed a “steady loss of trust” and deteriorating relations between the department and members of Congress.

9:33 a.m. Former Sen. Sam Nunn, R-Georgia, who introduced Rex Tillerson at this confirmation hearing for secretary of state yesterday, is among those introducing Mattis today. Nunn said Mattis is “exceptionally well-qualified to lead the department of defense” and he urged the panel to pass a statutory waiver to allow Mattis to lead the Pentagon. 

Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a former Republican senator who led the Pentagon under President Bill Clinton, is also introducing Mattis. He called Mattis a “warrior by nature” and said “what characterizes James Mattis is his courage.”

9:30 a.m. James Mattis’ confirmation hearing to become defense secretary is about to begin before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The panel is chaired by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and the top Democrat is Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island. 

The New York Times reported Thursday morning that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, will oppose Mattis’ nomination. 

  • Rebecca Shabad

    Rebecca Shabad is a video reporter for CBS News Digital.