Senator from military-heavy NC says he’ll back Mattis for defense secretary

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., left, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, pose questions to Ashton Carter on Feb. 4, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., left, and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, pose questions to Ashton Carter on Feb. 4, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP

Sen. Thom Tillis met Thursday with retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, and indirectly discussed military preparedness at Fort Bragg and other North Carolina military installations.

“Fort Bragg is an enormously important presence as the home to the 82nd Airborne and the Global Response Force of the XVIII Airborne Corps,” Tillis, R-N.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said following a 30-minute meeting with Mattis. “General Mattis knows that. And he knows similarly that Camp Lejeune, with 45 percent of all Marines based out of there, that North Carolina figures prominently in Department of Defense decisions about readiness and projection of our power across the world.”

The armed services committee is scheduled to hold its confirmation hearing on Mattis on Wednesday. Trump announced in December his selection of Mattis, an outspoken Marine who led U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia from 2010 to 2013.

Some Senate Democrats have threatened to slow-walk some of Trump’s cabinet nominees over concerns about a variety of issues, including civil rights, their personal finances, and relationships with Russia.

Tillis said nominees like Mattis and former Exxon-Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of state, “are quality people that the president has the right to have appointed and that I will work hard to get confirmed, and the Democrats have to get over it.”

They are just at a point now to where they are just trying to be obstructionist. Part of that is they still have to get over the outcome of the election, the complete rejection of their leadership

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., on Senate Democrats who’ve threaten to slow the confirmation of some Trump Cabinet nominees

Mattis isn’t expected to face stiff opposition in the committee. However, he faces a potential hurdle in that Congress must approve a waiver for him to serve as defense secretary, the Pentagon’s top civilian post.

U.S. law requires that the defense secretary be out of the military at least seven years. Mattis retired less than four years ago.

Tillis supports the waiver for Mattis and plans to vote for his confirmation. Still, Tillis said he plans to ask Mattis tough questions during next week’s hearing, mainly regarding the authorization of military use of force and wasteful spending at the Pentagon.

“I told him we’ve got to get rid of these wasteful practices, free that money up, and put it into more productive, appropriate investments like training, making sure our troops are ready, and making sure that they are well-equipped.”

Tillis and other members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation have been at odds over the Pentagon’s decision to deactivate the 440th Airlift Wing at Pope Army Airfield, part of Fort Bragg.

“I did talk indirectly with him (Mattis) about things that I think we need to do to stop constraining the department of defense in making decisions about the positioning and base presences,” Tillis said. “Quite honestly, I blame past congressional decisions as one of the reasons we lost the 440th.”

A member of Tillis’ staff is playing an active role in Mattis’ nomination process.

Robert Wilkie, a Tillis senior adviser, is on loan to the Trump transition team and is serving as Mattis’ “Sherpa,” guiding him through meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Wilkie served as an assistant defense secretary for legislative affairs under President George W. Bush and as a senior policy adviser to national security advisors Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley.

“He’s given General Mattis updates on what’s occurred over the last three years since he’s been out of this realm, and giving him updates on where the different (lawmakers) are to prepare him for meetings,” Tillis said.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas