Why Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Is Refusing To Allow James Mattis To Become Defense Secretary

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Trump's Selection For Defense Secretary Meets With Sen. Gillibrand At The Capitol
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

New York’s junior Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has stated that she remains opposed to granting a congressional waiver to allow retired marine and 4-star General James Mattis to become President-elect Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense, even after meeting with Mattis in person this past week.

Mattis retired in 2013 - four years ago. U.S. law requires general officers to be retired for at least seven years before they can become secretary of defense. Thus, a congressional waiver is needed for him to assume the position.

Mattis is the most qualified of President-elect Trump’s cabinet nominees if you were to apply the “most-qualified” standard used by Democrats during the 2016 presidential campaign to support Clinton. Senator Gillibrand and other Democrats campaigned for Hillary Clinton while stating that she was the most qualified presidential candidate in American history based on her experience in government service.

The same can be said for James Mattis, who served in uniform for over 43 years, rising to the rank of General in the Marine Corps and commanding troops at the Brigade and Division levels in both Iraq and Afghanistan before taking command of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

So why won’t Senator Gillibrand apply the same litmus test for James Mattis?

The New York Senator holds a vendetta against Mattis ever since he and other general officers successfully fought off her attempts to appoint outside prosecutors to deal with sexual assault cases in the military. She claims that this was about maintaining civilian control of the military. But the record shows otherwise.

For most of the Obama Administration, Senator Gillibrand maintained a steady assault against the military justice system called the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). During multiple congressional hearings, Senator Gillibrand called for legal authority to be stripped for military commanders for cases involving sexual assault and instead have them handled by an outside prosecutor.

Senator Gillbrand’s suggestion would amount to a breakdown in the UCMJ as written and would undermine the commander’s authority to discipline troops, a hallmark of the good order and discipline that ensures that orders are followed in the field.

As such, all of the 4-star generals of James Mattis’ generation opposed the move and rebuffed Senator Gillibrand’s calls, instead seeking to reform the current system.

Under questioning during congressional hearings on the topic, Mattis (then Commander of U.S. CENTCOM) vehemently opposed efforts to change the UCMJ and reminded senators that it had been upheld by the Supreme Court on numerous occasions. He disagreed with Senator Gillbrand's recommendations, as military justice and the commanders' authority to deliver it was required in order to maintain discipline and avoid the appearance of “kangaroo courts.”

These exchanges took place during intense public hearings of which Senator Gillibrand was a driving force.

General Mattis wouldn’t be the first general to receive a retirement waiver, and a former general is exactly what's needed to rebuild the military after nearly two decades of continuous combat. Mattis knows where the bodies are buried at the Pentagon, is intimately familiar with personnel and equipment readiness issues that are plaguing the military, and understands the threats we face as a nation better than almost anyone else.

Ultimately, Senator Gillibrand needs to rethink her approach to General Mattis' confirmation and put aside the past so that the Pentagon can have the leader it so desperately needs and deserves.

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