WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, called for the strongest possible relationship with NATO, warning Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to "break" it.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis told Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., he would even support a permanent US military presence in the Baltics to bolster the alliance.
The former commander of US Central Command and NATO supreme allied commander for transformation, Mattis showed the daylight between his views and Trump's comments denigrating US military alliances and stressing strong Moscow-Washington ties. In the wake of Trump's seeming indifference to Russia's efforts to influence the presidential election, Mattis faced tense questioning on the issue of Russia from several lawmakers.
Florida Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson asked directly: Where do his positions differ from Trump's on Russia? On the one hand, Mattis said he sees Putin as "a strategic competitor … and an adversary in key areas." Like Trump, he said he agrees in engaging Putin with "very modest expectations of areas of cooperation."
When Nelson asked pointedly about Trump statement during the campaign regarding conditional support for NATO allies, Mattis defended his presumptive boss.
"I'm confident that the president-elect expects us to live up to our word to include NATO in Article 5," Mattis said, referring to the NATO treaty's mutual-defense clause.
"I hope you're right, and I assume by your answer that you will stand up," Nelson said. Mattis replied, "One-hundred percent."
Nelson asked whether he expects to see tension with retired three-star general Mike Flynn, Trump's pick for national security advisor and campaign-trail ally. "No, sir, I do not," was Mattis' initial terse reply.
"You need different ideas to be strongly argued," Mattis said. "You don't want the tyranny of consensus of group-think early. … It's not tidy, it will be respectful, of that I'm certain, and I don't anticipate that anything but the best ideas will win, sir.
Early on, amid Russia and NATO questions from McCain, Mattis said the list of attempts to work with Russia was long, but the list of successes were short.
"Right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with, with Mr. Putin is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance," Mattis said.
Trump named Mattis in December to take on the top civilian defense role even though his recent military service disqualifies him from the job. Federal rules mandate at least seven years separation between military service and the defense secretary post. Mattis retired in 2013 after 44 years in the Marine Corps.
After weeks of controversy surrounding his selection for the top Pentagon post, the 66-year-old retired Marine Corps general faced a largely friendly reception from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee at the event, with Republicans praising his 44-year military career and most Democrats calling him a welcome check on Trump.
House and Senate lawmakers will have to approve a waiver allowing Mattis to assume the role, something that has only been done once in the last 80 years. The SASC passed the waiver immediately following the hearing, by a 24-3 vote.
In testimony released by Trump's transition team in advance of his hearing, Mattis told SASC members that he understands the constitutional need for civilian control of the armed forces.
Most of his most difficult questions revolved around the counsel he'll give to the incoming president, a novice to Washington bureaucracy and national security strategy, and whether Trump will listen.
He told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., he discussed the importance of US alliances with Trump.
"He has shown himself open even to the point of asking for questions going deeper into the issue about why I feel so strongly, and he understands where I stand," Mattis said. "I'll work with the other members of the national security team once the Senate confirms them to carry these views forward."
Mattis said bluntly that "I would not have taken the job if I believed (he) would not be open to my advice" and promised to offer candid military advice to both Trump and Congress.
The panel's top Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, noted Trump's recent statements on North Korea's ICBM capability, the US trade relations with China and an expansion of US nuclear weapons, but he called Trump's praise for Putin the most concerning of all.
"Many have supported the waiver legislation and your confirmation because they believe you will be, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the saucer that cools the coffee," Reed said.
In his opening statement, Mattis vowed to be a "forthright member" of the new administration's national security team, and to reinforce traditional tools of diplomacy.
"In addition to ensuring collaboration across government and the adoption of an integrated strategy, we must also embrace our international alliances and security partnerships," Mattis said. "History is clear: nations with strong alliances thrive and those without them wither."
Leo Shane contributed to this report.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.