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Senate Committee Questions Gen. James Mattis In Defense Confirmation Hearing


Retired Marine General James Mattis was at his confirmation hearing today before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Under questioning, Mattis showed that he and President-elect Donald Trump don't see eye to eye on certain things, like Russia. Here's what Trump said earlier this week.


DONALD TRUMP: If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability because we have a horrible relationship with Russia.

MCEVERS: Today, his pick for defense secretary was much more skeptical about Russia.


JAMES MATTIS: We also have to recognize reality and what Russia is up to. And there's a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia.

MCEVERS: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us to talk about this. Hello.


MCEVERS: So clearly there are some differences here. What else did Mattis say?

BOWMAN: Well, Kelly, Mattis is a student of history. And he said you can go back to just before the end of World War II, and there have been many attempts to engage positively with Russia. There have been few successes, he said. And he said Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to break NATO, and he said the U.S. must use all its measures - diplomatic, economic and military - to, quote, "defend ourselves."

MCEVERS: He says Putin is trying to break NATO, and that's also an area where Trump and Mattis seem to disagree. I mean the president-elect has said NATO is obsolete and has played down the alliance.

BOWMAN: That's right. Mattis said he's always needed allies in a fight, and he said NATO is the most important alliance there is.


BOWMAN: And of course the U.S. is sending more military equipment, troops as well as tanks to NATO allies because of concerns about Russia.

MCEVERS: Did any of the senators get into this disconnect between the incoming president and his nominee for defense secretary?

BOWMAN: You know, they did in a roundabout way. They talked about, you know, the lack of experience that President-elect Trump has. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Democrat, said Trump has little knowledge of defense policy. Mattis, you know, trying to be diplomatic, said, listen; Trump is very open. He has a lot of really good questions - so clearly indicating, you know, he hopes to be able to talk with Trump about some of these issues. There's a certain comfort level clearly.

MCEVERS: Where do Trump and Mattis agree?

BOWMAN: Well, clearly rebuilding the military. Mattis said Trump is heading in the right direction as far as increasing the number of planes and ships and soldiers and Marines. Both men have raised concerns on Iran, talking about the countries - what they see as aggressive nature in the Persian Gulf, their export of terrorism, they say, and supporting President Assad in Syria.

And of course Trump has been critical of the American-led effort against the Islamic State. Mattis agreed today, and he said - this is very interesting, Kelly - that fight should be energized. He didn't exactly say what he was talking about, but there are speculation there could be more bombing, more airstrikes, maybe even sending more special operators over to Syria and Iraq.

MCEVERS: In the past, Mattis has also been opposed to women serving in ground combat jobs. The Obama administration of course opened up all those jobs to women. Did that issue come up today?

BOWMAN: It came up repeatedly, Kelly. And Mattis was pressed on this issue by several senators. Let's listen to this back and forth with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat.


KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Do you plan on rolling back the opening of infantry positions to women based on your previous statements?

MATTIS: Senator, I've never come into any job with an agenda, a pre-formed agenda.

GILLIBRAND: Do you plan to oppose women serving in these combat roles?

MATTIS: I have no plan to oppose women in any aspect of our military.

BOWMAN: And Mattis went on to say that the important thing here is that both men and women should have to meet the same physical standards before they go into combat jobs. And he said that should not change.

And he indicated, Kelly, that men and women working closely together - the possibility of some romantic entanglements is something that officers will have to be trained to address, something he said their fathers did not have to deal with.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks a lot, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Kelly.

MCEVERS: And one footnote - Congress got closer today to waiving the law that bars Mattis from becoming defense secretary. That law says former service members can't do the job if they'd been on active duty within the last seven years. Mattis has been retired for almost four. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.