General (Ret) James Mattis

General (Ret) James Mattis, Nominee for Secretary of Defense and Congressional Waivers

Much has been said about President-Elect Trump’s potential nominees during the vetting process, especially for the key Secretary of Defense position in the Executive Branch. President-Elect Trump has nominated General (Ret.) James “Mad Dog” Mattis, U.S. Marine Corps. General Mattis has an impressive resume in regards to military service, with the experience necessary to understand the complexities of National Defense, military engagement in the world, and cooperation between allied forces.

General Mattis enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1969, while attending Central Washington University. During his studies, he entered the ROTC program. He earned a BA in History and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant through ROTC in 1971.

During his military career, General Mattis commanded at all levels of the Marine Corps, including several command positions in Joint Commands, and served as the Allied Forces Commander of Transportation in NATO. General Mattis also led from the front during the Persian Gulf War, and in the Invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. His final command was U.S. Central Command, which oversaw operations in the Middle East, and from which he retired in May of 2013.

As a civilian, General Mattis worked for FWA consultants, served as a board member at General Dynamics and Theranos. He also joined the advisory board of Spirit of America, a 501(c) that assists military personnel and the communities they serve.

In 2013, General Mattis became an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institute, as well as being named their Davies Family Distinguished Visiting Fellow.

The key focal point on this particular nomination is his ability to meet the requirements for the nomination, as set forth in U.S. Code, Title 10, Subtitle A, Part I, Chapter 2, § 113 and included in The National Security Act of 1947, namely:

There is a Secretary of Defense, who is the head of the Department of Defense, appointed from civilian life by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. 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.

General Mattis retired from active military service in 2013, three years prior to his nomination. This leaves questions as to whether General Mattis will be able to serve as the Secretary of Defense and whether Congress shall attempt to waive the requirements of seven years after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer.

A historical precedent was set in waiving military service requirements when General George C. Marshall was nominated as Secretary of Defense by President Truman in September 1950. Of note, General Marshall had resigned as Secretary of State in 1949 due to ill health. President Truman chose to nominate Marshall to deal with morale issues within the ranks and bring forth a more cohesive military as the Korean War was at its height.

The National Security Act of 1947 prohibited a military uniformed officer from serving as Secretary of Defense. Marshall had retired as a 5-star General, however since he served as General of the Army, the Act included military officers serving in that position. At the time, the prohibition was for ten years, which was changed to seven years in 2008.

Congress amended the Act to allow General Marshall to serve as Secretary of Defense. It is of note that while Congress waived service requirements for General Marshall, they stated,

It is hereby expressed as the intent of the Congress that the authority granted by this Act is not to be construed as approval by the Congress of continuing appointments of military men to the office of Secretary of Defense in the future.  It is hereby expressed as the sense of the Congress that after General Marshall leaves the office of Secretary of Defense, no additional appointments of military men to that office shall be approved.”

Civilian control of the military is one of the oldest traditions that predates the Constitution itself. History points to the earliest precedent set as most likely being in 1783, when General George Washington prevented a military takeover of the government, in what is widely known as the Newburgh Conspiracy.

Disgruntled members of the Continental Army, under Washington’s command, were upset over the government not paying the military members, and a small faction was ready to march on Philadelphia to seize control. General Washington quietly and deftly ended their plans.

As we know, four years later, during the drafting of the Constitution, the founding fathers wrote civilian authority over the military by giving command to the President as Commander In Chief, while giving Congress the power to declare war and fund it.

Congress continued that tradition when it created the office of the Secretary of Defense in 1947, along with passing the National Security Act, prohibiting military uniformed officers from serving in the position until the ten-year requirement between retirement and nomination had passed.

In addition, the circumstances surrounding the nomination of General Marshall also point to necessary civilian control. President Truman fired General Douglas McArthur in 1951, as General McArthur sought to widen the Korean War to include China, while President Truman’s policy was specifically engineered to limit military operations to just the Korean peninsula. While this firing does not point to requirements of a civilian appointee as Secretary of Defense, it does show a President’s authority to choose Generals to implement what their civilian superiors provided to them and it highlights the tradition of civilian control over the military.

As the Senate confirmation hearings begin for General Mattis, these historical situations and precedents are surely to be brought to light again, as our Senate debates civilian control of the military and another Act of Congress to waive military service for the second time in our Nation’s history.


The Federalist Coalition, along with the rest of the nation, will be avidly watching this historical situation play out. We presume General Mattis’ experience and career reflects the traditions our nation has held for over 240 years. We expect his nomination process to reflect the same.