This is a special view on the confirmation hearings provided by POPVOX interns from Brown University. We hope you enjoy and learn from their fresh perspective and front-row seat on Capitol Hill.


On Thursday, January 12, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a confirmation hearing for President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense, Retired General James N. Mattis.


What’s a confirmation hearing?

One of the Senate’s Constitutional duties is to provide advice and consent to the President on the appointment of federal officers. The Senate’s key role in confirming or rejecting the president-elect’s candidates serves as an important check on executive power. In each hearing, the members of a relevant Senate committee have the opportunity to question the nominee, hear the nominee’s case for serving the president, and listen to testimonies about the candidate.


What does the Secretary of Defense do?

The Secretary of Defense is the United States’s chief executive officer of the Department of Defense, overseeing the coordination and functioning of all branches of the military. The military power of the Secretary of Defense is only second to the Commander-in-Chief, the president. The Secretary of Defense is also a member of the president’s cabinet.


Who is Ret. Gen. James N. Mattis?

Retired General James N. Mattis (“Mad Dog” Mattis) is a retired U.S. Marine Corps general, who most recently served as Commander of the United States Central Command from August 11, 2010 to March 22, 2013 under the Obama Administration. Prior to that, he commanded the U.S. Joint Forces Command and served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. During the Iraq War, he commanded U.S. Marine Forces Central Command, I Marine Expeditionary Force, and the 1st Marine Division.


How does the hearing work?

The Senate Committee on Armed Services is in charge of the Secretary of Defense confirmation hearing. The committee oversees military research and development, common defense, and the selective service system, among many other things. It also has jurisdiction over the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Navy. The committee is led by Chair Sen. John McCain [R, AZ] and Ranking Member Jack Reed [D, RI]. Currently, thirteen Republicans and thirteen Democrats serve on the committee.


Activists, lobbyists, interns, and staffers packed the audience, and a line started a few hours before the hearing. No protestors were ejected, and the hearing ran for three hours in total, with a vote on S.84, a statutory waiver following.


POPVOX Senate Confirmation Hearing General Mattis President-Elect Trump

POPVOX Senate Confirmation Hearing Secretary of Defense General Mattis President-Elect Trump


What’s all this about a statutory waiver?

For a former member of the military to serve as the Secretary of Defense, a seven year period needs to pass. Because Mattis only left service in 2013, he has not completed the requisite seven years. For him to serve, Congress must pass a legislative exception. In the hearing, some members, such as Ranking Member Sen. Reed and Sen. Richard Blumenthal [D, CT], expressed concern about the precedent passing the waiver would set. Sen. Reed warned of the potential for political manipulation of the military should others in the future follow suit. 


POPVOX Senate Confirmation Hearing General Mattis President Elect Trump Secretary of Defense

Back to the hearing…what were the main issues?

Making America Great Again

As in the Tillerson hearing many Republicans emphasized the U.S. role on the international stage. General Mattis spoke about reinforcing existing alliances and supporting NATO.


Trump & Mattis

Though Mattis largely shares Trump’s goals of eliminating ISIS and strengthening the military, there were a number of issues on which he expressed views contrary to the President-elect.


  • Intelligence community: Mattis expressed a “very, very high degree of confidence in our intelligence community."

  • Russia: Mattis said the U.S. needs to realize what Russia’s real goals are and said he has "very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin," in contrast to President-elect Trump's frequent praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • NATO: Mattis stated that he wants to cultivate the strongest possible relationship with NATO, in contrast to statements by the President-elect. "If we did not have NATO today, we would need to create it. It is vital to the United States," said Mattis.


The Middle East

Mattis explained his view of ISIS as a symptom of the larger breakup of order in the Middle East and supports a complete overhaul of U.S. strategy, including expansion


Asked about the Iran deal by Sen. Reed, Mattis said that while it is imperfect and merits a thorough review, the U.S. needs to live up to its word. Mattis, known to be hawkish when it comes to Iran, said, if confirmed, he would publicize Iranian wrongdoings and proxy use in the Middle East to hold them accountable.


On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mattis emphasized his belief in a two-state solution. When pressed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, [R, SC] about what the rightful capital of Israel is, he replied that it was Tel Aviv, sticking with longstanding U.S. policy. When asked by Sen. Tim Kaine [D, VA] whether the U.S. should provide security assistance as part of a two-state peace program, such as the U.S. does along the Egyptian-Israeli border, he said that it was something to look into.



Mattis identified Russia as the “principal threat” facing the U.S., and asserted that the Kremlin deliberately interfered in the 2016 election to weaken America and the North Atlantic Alliance. Mattis also claimed that all attempts at Russian partnerships have failed, and that Putin will “never be our partner, including in fighting ISIL”. According to Mattis, Putin needs the U.S. as an enemy, and there is little hope for substantive engagement with Russia, beyond modest forms seen during the Cold War.


Modernizing and maintaining the military

A key concern voiced by many, including those from both sides of the aisle, was the effect of budget cuts and sequestration on the Department of Defense. Mattis, who identified that the greatest threat to national security is the government’s growing national debt, said that business as usual is dangerous. He said the Budget Control Act has had detrimental effects on military readiness. The Act, which was signed into law in 2011 enacted budget cuts across the board, which have had an impact on the training and readiness of combat units “at home."

Women and LGBT servicemembers

Mattis’s views on women in the military took center stage at the hearing. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand [D, NY] asked about the Pentagon’s decision to open infantry positions to women. He responded that he supports gender neutral hiring and opening roles to all genders. Sen. Gillibrand also asked Mattis if openly serving LGBT servicemembers undermine U.S. forces. He responded that he “never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with,” and that his main concern is the lethality of U.S. troops.

Learn more about the Budget Control Act:

The Budget Control Act was signed into law by President Obama on August 2, 2011 as a bipartisan attempt to reduce the federal deficit. It established a Congressional "Supercommittee" tasked with finding $3.8 trillion in deficit reduction, with provisions for a mandatory cuts, a "sequester," to automatically kick in if the Supercommittee failed to reach agreement. The mandatory cuts were divided evenly among defense and non-defense spending, at roughly $500 billion over ten years in both categories, with exceptions including Social Security; Veteran's Administration programs; refundable tax credits; low income programs including TANF, Pell grants and SSI; with special rules for Mediacre, student loans, and unemployment payments. Ultimately, the Supercommittee failed to reach agreement and the mandatory sequester cuts began in 2013.


Learn more: