Democracy & Elections

Trump Names General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense Nominee

Helen Klein Murillo
Friday, December 2, 2016, 10:11 AM

At last night’s stop in Cincinnati along his“Thank You Tour,” President-elect Donald Trump confirmed his intention to nominate General James Mattis to the Secretary of Defense post.

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At last night’s stop in Cincinnati along his“Thank You Tour,” President-elect Donald Trump confirmed his intention to nominate General James Mattis to the Secretary of Defense post.

The Secretary of Defense oversees all operational and administrative components of the Department of Defense. Second in the chain of command, the Secretary serves as the chief defense policy advisor to the President and exercises command and control over all branches of the armed forces—Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, and Navy—subject only to the orders of the Commander-in-Chief.

In addition to strategic and advisory responsibilities, the Secretary is responsible for an enormous administrative operation. DOD ranks as America’s largest employer, with the Secretary directing more than 1.3 million active servicemembers and nearly 750,000 civilian employees, along with an annual budget of nearly $600 billion.

A four-star general, Mattis served for more than four decades in the Marine Corps, commanding forces in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, and Iraq. General Mattis ultimately lead U.S. Central Command before his retirement in 2013 amid reports of discord with Obama Administration officials regarding Iran strategy. At the helm of CENTCOM, the general oversaw military operations and strategy stretching from Egypt to Pakistan.

Over the past few weeks, the floating of General Mattis as a possible SecDef pick has been met with a largely bipartisan sigh of relief amidst anxiety over the incoming administration. Mattis is experienced, respected by friends and colleagues, and well-liked in Washington. Some commentators, including Tom Ricks in Foreign Policy, have noted that his appointment may also indicate limitations on the influence of Trump’s National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn, whose iconoclastic views on Russia and outspoken dislike of Islam has caused concern.

But as Bobby explained last week, one concern looms large: Mattis is also a recently retired career servicemember, and there is both a statutory requirement and a political norm stipulating civilian control over the armed forces.

Under 10 U.S. Code § 113(a), a “person may not be appointed as Secretary of Defense within seven years after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer of a regular component of an armed force.” This restriction dates to the creation of the SecDef position under the National Security Act of 1947, though the amount of years required to lapse between service and appointment has changed over time. Because General Mattis retired in 2013, Congress would need to pass a statute either authorizing a one-time exemption or repealing this provision. As Bobby (and others) have explained, this would be unusual, though not unprecedented:

In September 1950, President Truman wanted to appoint George Marshall as secretary of defense despite the ban and went to Congress to get a statute that would override the National Security Act just in this instance. In the end, he got it but not without a bit of anxiety regarding the principle of civilian control of the military.

As historian Richard Kohn argues, civilian control of the military has emerged as a democratic norm in the United States: “Civilian control allows a nation to base its values and purposes, its institutions and practices, on the popular will rather than on the choices of military leaders, whose outlook by definition focuses on the need for internal order and external security.” The stakes here are high. The statutory prohibition of recent military leaders serving as the second in command to the President is not a mere technicality, but implicates fundamental democratic norms. Expect that debate to heat up in the coming months.

Helen Klein Murillo is a student at Harvard Law School, where she is an editor of the Harvard Law Review. Helen holds a B.A. in Political Science and Spanish from the University of California, Irvine.

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