Defense Secretary James Mattis’ unconventional choices for top Pentagon posts and his reluctance to aggressively push for dramatic increases in the defense budget have rankled Republicans on Capitol Hill who say he’s burning through political capital he needs as he begins reshaping the Pentagon.
Mattis was widely embraced on both sides of the aisle when President Donald Trump nominated him. Republicans and Democrats alike expressed hope that the retired four-star general would be a moderating force on the volatile commander in chief.
But Republican lawmakers and senior congressional aides said in recent interviews they’re running out of patience with Mattis' staffing decisions, which have disappointed Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee hoping to see their ideological allies elevated to senior levels in the Defense Department. Others are grumbling about Mattis’ refusal to advocate a bigger increase in the defense budget, which defense hawks believe was gutted disastrously under President Barack Obama.
“He certainly has got a tough job, but it sometimes feels like he forgets that we won the election,” said one aide to a GOP senator on the Armed Services Committee, who declined to speak on the record for fear of publicly alienating the defense secretary.
“We’ve waited eight years for this, to be able to fill these posts with Republicans,” said another top GOP Hill staffer. “We know Trump isn’t part of the establishment and that it’s going to be a bit different, but it should go without saying that a Republican administration is expected to staff federal agencies with Republicans.”
Mattis has bristled at nominating people with political backgrounds, including Randy Forbes, a former Virginia congressman who was considered for secretary of the Navy, and former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent, a Republican with expertise in defense policy, whose name has been floated for several senior defense posts. Senior members of the Republican foreign policy establishment had been pushing for the nominations of both men, neither of whom was openly critical of Trump during the campaign. Mattis has instead opted for deputies with backgrounds in law, diplomacy and business.
The defense secretary has also rankled Republicans with his efforts to hire veterans of Democratic administrations, pushing unsuccessfully to bring on Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, as his deputy. He has more recently proposed to the White House nominating Clinton administration veteran Rudy DeLeon as undersecretary for personnel and readiness and Richard V. Spencer, a former Marine and investment banker now affiliated with the bipartisan Center for a New American Security, as secretary of the Navy.
The Defense Department did not respond to requests for comment.
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