WASHINGTON — A few weeks ago, President Donald Trump wondered aloud if Defense Secretary James Mattis was “sort of a Democrat.”
Mattis is not a Democrat, nor is he registered with any political party. Yet it may be the Democrats who have increased the possibility that Mattis will remain leading the Pentagon for a longer period of time.
By taking control of the House — and thus the House committees — Democrats will be able to zero in on military programs and issues they question or outright oppose. The White House’s best hedge against Democratic marauding is Mattis, who is deeply respected by many in both parties.
“You heard the president say that. He [President Trump] is crazy like a fox,” one senior Defense official told TMN, in regards to Trump giving Mattis added cache in anticipation of a Democratic-controlled House.
Trump made the comments about Mattis during an interview that aired Oct. 14 on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
“When it comes to oversight [by House Democrats], what Trump has said won’t matter much. They [the Democrats] will do what they want to do,” Kurt Couchman, vice president of public policy at the Defense Priorities think tank, told TMN.
“Working with representatives to move legislation, he [Mattis] is good for that,” Couchman said.
A Democratic House could oppose parts of Trump’s defense agenda, such as creating a new branch of the military for space, and thus remove Mattis from the equation. That would reduce Trump’s ire at Mattis and perhaps cool his reported desire to fire the defense secretary, analysts said.
The Pentagon budget for fiscal year 2020 is already projected to be smaller than the budgets for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, dropping from $733 billion from the initial proposal to $700 billion in total defense spending.
“If the Democrats try to restrict defense sending, Secretary Mattis can argue for prioritizing how we spend limited defense dollars, i.e. for more naval vessels, badly needed new fighter planes and the upgraded B-1 bomber, maybe even reopening the F-22 production in partnership with the Japanese,” Earl Tilford, a military historian, author and former director of research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute, told TMN.
Tilford said Mattis could credibly argue that “given the world situation, we cannot afford another separate service at the expense of weapons procurement and more support for our military personnel.”
In the House, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), a sharp student of Pentagon budgets, is expected to become the House Armed Services Committee chairman next year. He has told reporters that he will have the committee look deeply into the military’s roles in Yemen and Africa, among other locations, and ratchet up overall oversight, according to various news reports.
The elections also cost the Senate Armed Services Committee some of its members. Committee members who lost reelection bids were Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and possibly Bill Nelson of Florida, who is seeking a recount in election returns that indicate Gov. Rick Scott is the winner.
Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, was elected to the Senate.
Couchman said Democrats and the White House ”may have some common ground looking at missions” in finding areas to reduce and then better allocate spending.
“We send a lot of people back and forth [on deployments],” Couchman told TMN. “So I think both President Trump and House Democrats especially as they approach another budget deal may be interested in looking at missions to make sure the [money] is available for procurement, readiness and force protection.”