Trump Team Said to Cancel Mattis House Panel Testimony on Waiver

  • Defense secretary pick had agreed to testify at Armed Services
  • Cancellation said to be ordered by Trump transition team

BEDMINSTER TOWNSHIP, NJ - NOVEMBER 19: (L to R) President-elect Donald Trump welcomes retired United States Marine Corps general James Mattis as they pose for a photo before their meeting at Trump International Golf Club, November 19, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey. Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and other high level positions for the new administration.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A House panel abruptly canceled a scheduled appearance by defense secretary nominee General James Mattis ahead of a vote to waive a law barring recently retired military officers from leading the Pentagon.

The retired Marine Corps four-star general had agreed to testify Thursday before the House Armed Services Committee, even though that chamber doesn’t have a role in confirming presidential nominees.

The decision to cancel his appearance came from President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team, according to a congressional aide familiar with the matter.

House Democrats say many members of their party aren’t inclined to approve the waiver unless Mattis appears before the committee.

"The idea is that if we don’t hear from him, we aren’t voting for him," said Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the panel, who added that he will be urging fellow House Democrats to follow suit.

The Republican chairman of the panel, Mac Thornberry of Texas, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment on whether any House Republicans will withhold support for the waiver when the bill reaches the House floor for a vote. The panel is still scheduled to vote on the waiver Thursday, with a vote on the House floor expected Friday.

There was no immediate response from Trump transition team officials on why they asked for the Mattis appearance to be canceled.

Seven Years

Mattis retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, well short of the requirement that a military officer be retired for at least seven years to serve as Pentagon chief. 

Before Mattis can be confirmed, the House and Senate have to pass legislation to grant him an exception to that law. 

Mattis was expected to testify before the House Armed Services panel about the role of civilian leadership of the military. His appearance was going to follow his formal confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday morning.

While Mattis, 66, is still expected to win confirmation -- and the waiver legislation could win passage in the House and Senate this week -- the precedent being set worries some members.

Considering Consequences

“This requirement has served our nation well for the past 70 years, and only once has Congress waived or modified” it, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a hearing Tuesday on the waiver. 

“I believe it is extremely important that we carefully consider the consequences of setting aside the law” and “the implications such a decision may have on the future of civilian and military relations,” he added.

New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has said that while she respects Mattis, she won’t back a waiver.

The House’s No. 2 Democrat, Steny Hoyer of Maryland, told reporters Wednesday he believes "the committee has a right and a responsibility to inquire of General Mattis why he thinks there ought to be a waiver, what the ramifications of a waiver are, and what importance he thinks the seven-year waiting period has." 

"Now, having said that, I want to make it clear I think most Democrats think General Mattis may well be the best appointee to the Cabinet that Trump has made," Hoyer said. 

But, he added, "This is not a decision that should be lightly made."

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