WASHINGTON ― The Warrior Monk was having a bad meeting.
At the Capitol in the fall of 2017, Sen. John McCain was fuming to then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Unless Mattis turned over the Trump administration’s tardy Afghanistan strategy and testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain felt he couldn’t do his job.
But when Mattis, who had been crisscrossing the globe to meet allies, tried to explain his lack of responsiveness ― “Sir, there just aren’t enough hours in the...” ― McCain hit the roof. The chairman had already mentioned his subpoena power to Mattis and now he was telling the retired Marine Corps general he had a constitutional responsibility to testify, according to a 2019 book from Mattis aide Guy Snodgrass.
Days later, McCain went public with a stinging assessment: his relationship with the Pentagon was worse than it had been during the Obama administration. He also disclosed he was blocking Pentagon nominees from confirmation. When McCain threatened a subpoena to get answers on U.S. troop deaths in Niger, Mattis met with McCain the next day in a public act of contrition, telling reporters, “We can do better at communication.” McCain stressed there would henceforth be regular meetings between them.
Now another former four-star, retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, has been nominated for defense secretary, raising the prospect of a similar learning curve with Capitol Hill. Defense News spoke with veteran insiders from the Mattis era, who said McCain’s blowup was part of the former secretary’s complicated relationship with Congress ― a relationship that offers lessons for Austin and his team if he hopes to win support for President-elect Joe Biden’s national security budget and priorities.
Lawmakers from across the political spectrum have fretted that confirming another retired general as defense secretary will further tilt a Pentagon imbalance toward uniformed military voices and erode America’s founding principle of civilian control of the military. At a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, expert witness Lindsay Cohn, of the U.S. Naval War College, noted that four of the most consequential and successful defense secretaries had partisan political experience beforehand: Cap Weinberger, Dick Cheney, Leon Panetta and Bob Gates.
Though defense secretaries “serve as a key node for Congress’s oversight and civilian control of the military,” Cohn said, Mattis “seemed to be uncomfortable dealing with political issues ... So I do not think that these were shining examples of the best that we can do with secretaries of defense.”
To be clear, Mattis had a stellar career in the Marine Corps. As a one-star, he commanded Task Force 58, which executed the farthest-ranging amphibious assault in Marine Corps or Navy history and aided in the capture of Kandahar, and he led the 1st Marine Division during the initial attack of Operation Iraqi Freedom ― both before he served as commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command and U.S. Central Command. Known as “the Warrior Monk” for his studies of military history, he co-edited the book “Warriors & Citizens: American Views of Our Military,” after his retirement. He also served on the board of General Dynamics.
Helped by the idea that a 44-year national security veteran would serve as a check on President Donald Trump’s unorthodox national security views, Congress passed legislation for Mattis to bypass a seven-year “cooling off” period between military service and assuming the top Pentagon’s job. The Senate confirmed him 98-1.
But, while several Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee said they support the idea for Austin’s nomination, a few Democrats on the panel said they were “torn” on the issue, concerned about civilian control of the military to protect public faith in the institution but convinced Austin’s unique background qualifies him for the role.
Austin, who would be the first Black defense secretary, has had a trailblazing career. He was the first Black man to serve as director of the Joint Staff and the 200th person ever to attain the rank of an Army four-star general, but only the sixth African American to do so. Austin impressed then-Vice President Joe Biden as the chief of CENTCOM, where he designed and executed the multinational campaign that ultimately beat back the Islamic State. Since retiring, he’s served on the board of Raytheon Technologies.
To overcome congressional skepticism, Austin has been meeting lawmakers to convince them to pass another waiver and confirm him. In addition, the Biden transition team committed Austin to appear before the House Armed Services Committee on Jan. 21 to testify and reassure lawmakers he’s committed to civilian control. In 2017, the Trump White House barred Mattis from testifying for a similar hearing.
Austin’s formal Senate Armed Services confirmation hearing is set for Jan. 19.
Personnel and face-time
Trump often lagged or chose not to nominate and win confirmation for experienced political appointees, which left Mattis and his team shorthanded at the Pentagon. (His assistant defense secretaries weren’t confirmed until the summer of 2017.) Still, Mattis is seen by civ-mil experts to have doubled down on his political blind spots by relying heavily on military officers to staff the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Eighteen months in, 80 percent of the leaders in top OSD jobs had served in the military versus 35 percent under the Obama administration, according to a study by former Pentagon official Mara Karlin.
“My perception is that Mattis had a really competent set of people who he trusted, but those people were not tied into the policy process, and didn’t have relationships across the interagency or on the Hill,” said Jim Golby, a senior fellow with the Clements Center who studies civ-mil issues. “They were probably okay helping keep things running between the combatant commands, but there was a disconnect in that Washington world.”
For Austin, the selection of career Pentagon civilians such as Kathleen Hicks for deputy defense secretary, Colin Kahl for undersecretary of defense for policy and Kelly Magsamen for Austin’s chief of staff seems to reflect a sensitivity to concerns about how Mattis formed his team.
“Austin, as far as I know, is not somebody who has any deep political background or who has [extensive] budgetary experience,” Golby said. “Mitigating against that you have Kath Hicks, someone with a great reputation on the Hill and in the department, who would be able to help manage and run a budget process that would ideally align the department’s political goals with spending realities.
Magsamen’s prior service on the National Security Council would be in a position to advise Austin on Washington’s political dynamics.
“It all comes down to whether or not he can make the most of those choices, but they put a team in place that would mitigate at least some of the major concerns that you would have internal to the Defense Department,” Golby said of Austin.
One political misstep for Mattis was when his team declined to seriously consider some GOP lawmakers’ veteran national security staffers for senior roles at the Pentagon. For example, Mark Esper was Mattis’s third nominee for Army secretary when McCain had publicly recommended retired Col. James Hickey, the commander of the brigade that caught Saddam Hussein, and “one of the most outstanding officers,” McCain said, “that I’ve ever had the opportunity of dealing with.”
“You had Mattis ignoring the requests of senior senators to even politely interview people, so we had Senate staff actively block nominees with the knowing or unwitting support of McCain,” said Pete Giambastiani, a former Mattis adviser for legislative affairs. “There was a lot of fratricide, and I had more problems with Republicans blocking our people...Everybody who knew how this game was played blamed Mattis, and that polluted things.”
Austin, by contrast, could build trust and help congressional oversight by hiring staff from the team of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed, and other Democrats. “Austin would do well to build that bridge by bringing Reed’s staff over, but he would also do well to pick up the phone and establish up front what [the committee’s] expectations are and what they consider a major issue they should be kept aware of,” said one former Senate staffer.
By 2018, Mattis had the advantage of a fuller staff and won praise after he attended the Senate’s weekly party lunches to talk up defense spending and criticize unstable budgeting, but he was notoriously averse to holding the one-on-one meetings that lawmakers prize. While Mattis’s successor, Patrick Shanahan, was convinced to meet weekly with lawmakers in both the House and Senate, Mattis never did.
“People on the Hill don’t have a lot of time, and if they hear that the only person who can make a decision in a 3.1 million-person organization is Jim Mattis, that’s the only person they want to talk to,” said Giambastiani. “He used to tell Congress, ‘I don’t have time for Congress,’ which was stunning. And they were like ‘That’s actually a huge part of your job!’”
Mattis warmed some to the idea eventually, visiting the annual congressional GOP retreat in West Virginia in 2017 and attending a private dinner hosted by the House’s No. 3 Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise, in 2018. Mattis also made phone calls to successfully lobby for the confirmations of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and CIA Director Gina Haspel.
“He could ask members of Congress for something for him at these events because he was doing something for them,” said Giambastiani.
Authorizers and appropriators
Senate authorizers are gatekeepers on all Pentagon nominations; authorizers in both chambers draft the popular annual defense policy bill ― the National Defense Authorization Act ― in a fairly open way; they host annual posture hearings and they have more members and staff solely dedicated to military issues. But that’s only part of the story: Though the Pentagon’s hierarchy is less focused on appropriators and their staffs, the appropriations panels hold immense power over budgetary decisions and can extend prized budget flexibility.
“The Pentagon comptroller can come to us and say he has an amended budget request, and ‘I know you guys have marked up your bill, but can you move around these big chunks of the budget, these big rocks?’ If there’s a great relationship with the Pentagon, more things are possible,” said one former Senate appropriations staffer. The official added: “Not looking at the appropriators is a misstep that’s easy to make unless there’s a really aggressive appropriator who’s making themselves known or a really savvy defense secretary.”
Texas Republican Rep. Kay Granger, who chaired the House defense appropriations subpanel, was a vocal fan of the defense secretary and floated proposals for spending flexibility that included a nonspecific $28.6 billion fund. On the other hand, the powerful chairman of the full committee, then-Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, once emailed Mattis through a budget liaison, complaining he lacked a direct channel to the defense secretary, Giambastiani recalled.
“Mattis kind of ignored the House and was totally unfamiliar with the role of appropriators because they were not involved in his confirmation nor his confirmations in the military. He never had a budget or a resourcing and acquisition background in his time in the Marine Corps,” Giambastiani said. “This was just a huge blind spot that never got fixed; we just kind of worked through it.”
Senior military officers are naturally focused on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which clears every promotion at the 0-4 level and above.
“Every time you’re nominated you’re aware your nomination is sitting with the SASC, and by the time you become a four-star general, that’s six, seven times,” said a former defense budget official under Mattis. “Their education level about appropriations and engagement with those committees is usually minimal. When they show up, they will have met with every Senator on SASC, but that kind of general engagement and process beforehand with appropriators is normally not there.”
Other structural issues fuel appropriators’ sensitivities: At OSD, there is an assistant secretary for legislative affairs who reports to the defense secretary himself, but the official who deals most with appropriators is a deputy comptroller. Each of the armed services has a legislative affairs office (led by a two-star), while the budget liaison office (led by an officer at the 0-6 level) deals with appropriators and reports through the comptroller channel.
Appropriators want a fix. This year’s defense appropriations law orders the next defense secretary to submit proposals and recommendations to “strengthen the budget and appropriations liaison offices to improve coordination within the Department of Defense and the House and Senate Appropriations Committees for the vital work performed by each institution.”
More directly, Biden has signaled he would make large investments in military unmanned vehicles and artificial intelligence systems without adding more to the top line. Moving money this way means Austin would need to win over appropriators.
“If the building focuses its rollout of the next National Defense Strategy to the authorizers, and if you don’t win the buy-in from appropriators to properly resource it,” the former budget official said, “all you have is a well-written policy document.”
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.