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Panel Sets Vote on Waiving Waiting Period for Mattis

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis was tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to head the Defense Department. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis was tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to head the Defense Department. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Armed Services Committee plans to vote this week on whether to exempt Donald Trump’s Defense secretary nominee from the standard waiting period for former military officers chosen to run the Pentagon.

The committee is expected to vote Jan. 12 to approve legislation that would permit the nominee, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, to be confirmed by the Senate under expedited procedures.

The waiver is needed because current law requires a seven-year waiting period before retired officers can serve as Defense secretary; Mattis has only been out of the service for three years.

Some Democrats have concerns about setting a precedent that could weaken the law that creates separation between uniformed leadership and civilian oversight at the Pentagon. But there is no sign that those concerns will be enough to keep Mattis from receiving the waiver, paving the way for his confirmation.

The vote on the waiver is expected to occur after the committee holds a confirmation hearing for Mattis. It is not yet clear when the committee might vote to send Mattis’s nomination to the full Senate.

Word of the planned vote comes as the committee reviews paperwork Mattis filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics this month. In those filings, Mattis indicates that he plans to separate himself from several organizations if the Senate confirms him.

“The purpose of this letter is to describe the steps that I will take to avoid any actual or apparent conflict of interest in the event that I am confirmed for the position of Secretary of Defense,” Mattis said in a Jan. 5 missive to Jennifer O’Connor, the Pentagon’s general counsel and ethics official.

In the letter, Mattis said he will resign from his position as a director on the board of General Dynamics Corp. He also said he will sell his stock in the company and recuse himself for one year from matters in which General Dynamics is considered a “party.”

Separating entirely from issues concerning General Dynamics will not be easy. The company is one of the Navy’s top shipbuilders and also manufactures key military vehicles.

Richard Painter, who was the chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, said in an interview that Mattis’s proposed recusal means he could participate as secretary in general discussions about say, Navy ship budgets, but not particular decisions about quantities in General Dynamics contracts.

Painter believes the recusal should last for more than one year. He said former contractor executives might favor their former colleagues even if they do not directly benefit financially from decisions that favor the contractor.

“It’s a psychological bias toward their former employer plus the possibility they could go back for more bucks” if they are rehired by the company later, Painter said.

Ties to health tech company

Mattis also is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank located at Stanford University, and he promised the general counsel that he would leave that post as well.

He has previously resigned from several other positions on boards of directors or as a consultant.

He has, for example, resigned as a board member at Theranos Inc., a health technology company based in Palo Alto, Calif.

Mattis says in the ethics letter that he has been advised he does not have to divest himself of Theranos stock because the Pentagon secretary is unlikely to be involved in decisions affecting the company. But he said he is nonetheless recusing himself from any matters involving Theranos, should they arise.

Mattis also is cutting himself off from involvement in any possible Defense Department deliberations that might affect Random House Publishers, which will be issuing a book he has written.

A financial disclosure form that Mattis also filed with the ethics office shows the nominee is worth up to $10 million, which would make him one of the less affluent members of Trump’s proposed Cabinet.

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