WASHINGTON — Democrats, and some Republicans, are counting on Gen. James Mattis, Donald Trump's pick for defense secretary, to be a check on the impulsive, inexperienced president-elect.
But the president-elect just checked Mattis.
Trump's transition team benched the former Marine Corps four-star just as he was to appear before the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday. And in a single stroke, the transition offended HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, complicated Mattis' confirmation and undercut the central argument in Mattis' favor with Democrats — that he can stand up to Trump.
Because Mattis retired in 2013, he needs Congress to pass legislation to waive a seven-year cooling-off period for uniformed leaders before he can take the Pentagon's top civilian job. Until Tuesday night, Mattis was committed — and "eager," Thornberry said — to testify before the HASC after his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, as a show of deference to the principle of civilian control of the military. The waiver applies to a 70-year-old law, and it would be the second ever after 1950.
"Where Gen. Mattis was willing to come and testify on this topic before the House Armed Services Committee and the Trump White House said 'no,' clearly that concerns me, that they're not listening to their own secretary of defense," said HASC Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I. "On something like this, they could have and should have deferred to his wishes."
House Democrats also accused their Republican counterparts of ceding the legislature's power to the incoming president. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told Defense News that Republicans privately expressed misgivings but were unable to rally for a tough stand.
"Early on, I think, there was some muscle, but I think it just atrophied," she said, adding: "For eight years there's been a drumbeat from Republicans about the president rolling over Congress. That's the very first act, even before [Trump] is president, and they're whimpering."
The waiver faces a House floor vote Friday, where it is expected to pass in spite of surging Democratic opposition. The waiver passed the Senate 81-17 on Thursday in a largely bipartisan vote.
HASC Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, voted for the waiver, but said Wednesday of the transition team's action: "It certainly sets a very bad precedent for a position that requires working very closely with Congress."
"I'm very disappointed, I believe it's a mistake. The legislative branch is being asked to deliberate and take an action without [Mattis'] input," Turner said.
Through the Senate waiver vote, Mattis was the only Cabinet nominee Democrats could have unilaterally blocked. But many Democrats were willing to approve the waiver because of their high regard for Mattis, a former chief of US Central Command with 44 years of military service and a tough but thoughtful reputation.
Yet a day after Thornberry announced Mattis would appear at the HASC, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., broke the news to reporters Wednesday that Trump's transition team had shut it down. This after Trump's nominee for attorney general, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, endured the first day of a lengthy, bruising confirmation hearing.
Trump transition spokeswoman Alleigh Marre, in a statement, said Mattis was instead focusing Thursday on his Senate testimony.
At the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mattis breezed through his three-hour confirmation hearing, in which lawmakers from both parties made clear they expect him to stand up to Trump and his White House national security team.
Mattis obliged with a warmer take than his presumptive boss on the Iran nuclear deal and NATO, and a cooler take on Russia. He also said he would forcefully advocate for his views.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking member on the SASC, told Mattis that "many have supported the waiver legislation in your confirmation because they believe you will be, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, 'the saucer that cools the coffee.' "
Mattis at turns did side with Trump. In reference to Trump's Twitter criticisms of the F-35 Lightning II program, which has suffered from major cost-overruns and delays, he said: "The president-elect has talked about the cost of it, but he has in no way shown a lack of support for the program; he just wants the best bang for the buck."
Still, there is reportedly strife within Trump's national security team over who will get top jobs in the Defense Department — and who gets to make those decisions. Mattis was rejecting large numbers of candidates offered by the transition team for several top posts, according to The Washington Post.
On Mattis's nonappearance, HASC member Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said the retired general "won't tolerate for long" being boxed in, adding: "This was a very bad move by the incoming administration, bad for us and bad for them because I don't think Mattis will put up with being jerked around. Period."
At Thursday afternoon's HASC hearing, the no-show fueled a partisan row, but the waiver passed in a symbolic 34-28 vote along party lines. Democrats fumed the transition team had made the committee irrelevant, and while they were confident in Mattis, they said they could not change a 70-year-old law without the chance to question him.
HASC ranking member, Rep. Adam Smith, argued the committee should have held out and refused to vote on the waiver until Trump's team let Mattis appear.
"In this critically, critically important matter, who is going to be the secretary of defense, and civilian control of the military, the incoming president's team has decided the House Armed Services Committee is irrelevant," said Smith, D-Wash. "We are abdicating our authority on this committee, and I think that is an enormous mistake."
An annoyed Thornberry had explained the transition team informed him Tuesday night Mattis would not appear, adding: "I think that was a mistake."
"Let me be clear: Gen. Mattis was willing and eager to do so. I talked to him personally. He gladly agreed to answer our questions about the waiver or other topics we might have," Thornberry said.
"I have complete confidence that Gen. Mattis would have answered our questions in a way that adds confidence to the wisdom of his selection," Thornberry said. "It would have added strength to his position and gotten the partnership between him and our committee off to a good start. He recognized those advantages immediately. Unfortunately, short-sightedness prevailed."
Still, Thornberry argued that Democratic claims of a Constitutional crisis were a stretch, noting that Gen. George Marshall did not appear before Congress, when Congress granted him a waiver in 1950.
"Men and women are risking their lives all over the world, they need a secretary of defense," he said.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.