Editorial Board

Will General Mattis Stand Up to His Boss?

The Defense Department nominee differs with Trump on Russia, nuclear missiles and other top military issues.

"Mad Dog" faces the Senate.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for defense secretary, has called Russia the "most dangerous" short-term threat to U.S. interests and raised the question of whether President Vladimir Putin is "delusional." Trump, meanwhile, has praised Putin's savvy and talked of repairing U.S.-Russia relations.

This isn't the only issue on which Mattis is at odds with his prospective boss, and Mattis isn't the only Trump nominee to have such differences. But the questions have special relevance for the man who has been selected to lead the world's most powerful military and largest bureaucracy -- not to mention the top recipient of congressional dollars.

At his confirmation hearings Thursday, in addition to getting Mattis's views on strategy and policy, senators should ask Mattis how he intends to navigate these issues. On Russia, for example: Has Mattis changed his personal opinion of Putin in the last year and a half? If not, in what ways does he intend to challenge his future boss on Russia policy? Finally, what does he see as a proportional response to the Russian hacking in the presidential race?

Trump has also criticized the new rule allowing women into combat positions. There is speculation that he may work to overturn protections for LGBTQ troops. Mattis, likewise, has written that he disapproves of civilian leaders pushing a "progressive agenda" that turns the military into a social experiment. He should explain in detail any recent reforms he would attempt to roll back.

Then there are Mattis's views on several of President Barack Obama's initiatives, such as the so-called pivot to Asia, meant to solidify diplomatic-military relationships with allies and blunt potential threats from China. It remains more of a plan on paper than a fact on the water. Mattis should be asked what changes in naval forward posture he would call for, and whether the Obama administration's response to China's "fake island" building -- a few freedom-of-navigation operations and flyovers -- has been too mild.

Obama also set in motion a modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal that could cost up to $1 trillion. Trump has tweeted that he, too, wants the U.S. to upgrade its nuclear weapons capability. Mattis, however, has said it's time to discuss dropping the intercontinental ballistic missiles that make up the land leg of the "nuclear triad" to reduce "false alarm danger." What will he advise Trump to do?

There is no doubt that James Mattis is qualified to be secretary of defense, and senators should make him eligible by waiving the rule prohibiting retired generals from serving for at least seven years. At the same time, they should not squander their opportunity to find out, as best they can, how he sees his obligations to the country when his definition of the national interest differs from the president's.