President-elect Trump's transition effort has been active on the defense, intelligence and national security fronts in the past week. On November 17, President-elect Trump offered Lieutenant General (Ret.) Michael Flynn, former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Trump campaign's longtime top advisor on defense, intelligence and national security issues, the role of National Security Advisor. The following day, President-elect Trump's transition team released the rosters of its landing teams for the Pentagon and National Security Council.
The Pentagon landing team is led by Lieutenant General (Ret.) Keith Kellogg, former Chief Operating Officer of the Coalition Provisional Authority transitional government in Baghdad, and Mira Ricardel, a former Boeing VP and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy under President George W. Bush. Marshall Billingslea, Deloitte's Director of Business Intelligence Services and a former Deputy Under Secretary of the Navy, leads the National Security Council landing team.
Also on November 18, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS 4th), a West Point graduate and member of the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee, received the nomination to serve as Director of the CIA under the Trump administration. Additionally, in recent days, current Director of the National Security Agency and Commander of US Cyber Command, Admiral Mike Rogers, has been named as a top candidate to be tapped to serve as Director of National Intelligence in the Trump administration. On November 19, President-elect Trump met with General (Ret.) James “Mad Dog” Mattis, former Commander of US Central Command. In this role, Mattis was the top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013. In the past 48 hours, he has emerged as the frontrunner to receive the nomination to serve as Secretary of Defense. Mattis is revered by those who served with him in both the enlisted and officer ranks, and widely respected by key defense policymakers in both parties on Capitol Hill.
This latter point is key. Mattis would require a waiver from Congress to serve as Secretary of Defense. To uphold one of the cornerstone principles of the US democratic republic—civilian control of the military—by law, former military officers cannot serve as Secretary of Defense within seven years of retirement without a congressional waiver. On November 21, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, whose position would carry significant weight during any waiver consideration, and who would lead Mattis' confirmation process, voiced his strong support for General Mattis and stated: “General Mattis has a clear understanding of the many challenges facing the Department of Defense, the US military and our national security. I hope he has an opportunity to serve America again.”
Were Mattis to receive the nomination to serve as Secretary of Defense, he is unlikely to encounter much congressional resistance during the requisite waiver and confirmation processes. Notably, Mattis would be the second retired general in history to serve as Secretary of Defense. Former Army Chief of Staff George Marshall served as President Harry Truman's Secretary of State, and then as his Secretary of Defense, the latter of which required an exception from Congress. Of course, the Mattis nomination is not a foregone conclusion, and other candidates remain under consideration for Secretary of Defense, including two civilians who would not require a congressional waiver—former Missouri Republican Senator Jim Talent, a former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and a longshot for the nomination, Stephen Hadley, former National Security Advisor to President George W. Bush.
While congressional Democrats, and even some congressional Republicans, have expressed concerns about some of General Flynn's stated positions on Islam, his alleged close ties with the Putin regime, and potential conflicts of interest through the consulting firm that bears his name, the National Security Advisor position does not require confirmation. Rep. Pompeo has his own set of Democratic detractors on Capitol Hill, but he is unlikely to encounter significant hurdles during his nomination process.
In all, President-elect Trump's recent nominations and leading candidates for key defense, intelligence and national security roles in his administration demonstrate that Trump intends to surround himself with hawkish individuals who in large part support the President-elect's campaign promise to aggressively pursue the eradication of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, both foreign and domestic. These individuals are expected to have outsized roles in the Trump administration, will in large part develop and drive the President-elect's defense and national security policy priorities, and will likely have significant influence over US foreign policy as well.
The Trump administration's first federal budget proposal is likely to be released in the April-May 2017 timeframe, but during the intervening months, as the President-elect continues to build his defense, intelligence and national security teams, we will have further insights into the top priorities that Trump's Department of Defense will pursue at the outset of his presidency.