Rules are rules: 1947 law might block Trump’s Secretary of Defense pick
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel laughs with Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis after the U.S. Central Command change-of-command ceremony on MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, March 22, 2013. (DOD photo)
By Tracy Fuga
At a rally in Cincinnati on Dec. 1, President-elect Donald Trump said he would nominate retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis to become the next Secretary of Defense. However, there’s a slight problem with his choice. One must be retired from the military for at least seven years to be eligible to be the Secretary of Defense, according to a section of the U.S. Code, and Mattis has been retired for less than half that time.
This requirement — which used to stipulate 10 years until the beginning of President Obama’s administration in 2008 when it was changed to seven — originates from the National Security Act of 1947, which President Harry S. Truman signed into law shortly after the end of World War II. That act created the role of the Secretary of Defense to coordinate the Army, Navy and then-newly created Air Force branches of the military. The law also created the CIA.
The law was initially prepared as a way to craft a larger separation between the Secretary of Defense and active-duty military so as to make him or her an effective adviser who is simultaneously loyal to civilian leadership. Congress could make an exception to this law, thus allowing Mattis to take on the role. This merely requires passing a new statute. Congress has done so before: when President Truman wanted former Secretary of State George Marshall to run the Pentagon in 1950. Congress could have changed the original law completely but chose to pass a one-time exception instead, underscoring the importance of a longer separation from military service for the role.
Some Trump detractors have noted that Mattis is possibly not fit for the role based on factors other than the seven-year rule. A former Army Special Forces officer has accused the retired Marine general of leaving his men to die after they were hit by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2001. The 2011 New York Times bestselling book, “The Only Thing Worth Dying For,” portrays Mattis as stubbornly unwilling to help the Green Berets. Mattis, then a brigadier general commanding a nearby group of Marines, allegedly refused repeated requests to send helicopters to rescue the Green Berets. Eventually an Air Force Special Forces unit based three hours away, in Pakistan, sent helicopters to rescue the wounded men. Three Afghans and a badly wounded American died on the way to the hospital, according to the book. It is not known whether they could have been saved.
It is not surprising that there is controversy with Trump’s Secretary of Defense pick as it has paralleled much of Trump’s leadership decisions thus far. Other notable missteps in his cabinet include an education activist with no education background who is anti-public schools and a chief strategist who has been accused of having racist views.
Do you support the nomination of “Mad Dog” or is he just mad?