Senate confirms James Mattis as defence secretary, John Kelly for homeland security chief

The Senate voting overwhelmingly to approve retired Marine General James Mattis as Secretary of Defence.
The Senate voting overwhelmingly to approve retired Marine General James Mattis as Secretary of Defence.PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Just hours after President Donald Trump was sworn into office, the Senate on Friday (Jan 20) confirmed two nominees for critical national security positions, General James Mattis as defence secretary and General John Kelly as homeland security secretary.  

Republicans had hoped to approve a far greater number of nominees on Mr Trump’s first day in office, but that process has been delayed because several of Mr Trump’s nominees have been late in filing ethics disclosures, prompting protests by Senate Democrats.  

While Republicans sought to confirm a third national security nominee on Friday (Jan 20),  Mr Mike Pompeo, the president’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Democrats planned to delay his approval, noting that he had not even been approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee as of Friday (Jan 20).  

Three Democratic senators – Mr Ron Wyden of Oregon, Mr Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Mr Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut – objected to what they characterised as an overly speedy push to confirm Mr Pompeo.  

“The importance of the position of CIA Director, especially in these dangerous times, demands that the nomination be thoroughly vetted, questioned and debated,” the senators said in a statement.  

The skirmish over nominees set a grim tone for the first day of Senate under the new president. The Senate majority leader, Mr Mitch McConnell, chastised Democrats for delaying nominees, pointing out that the Senate had cleared seven such Cabinet officials on President Barack Obama’s first day in office in 2009.  

Senator Dick Durbin responded that Mr McConnell had refused to even allow a hearing to be held for Mr Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, during his last year in office.  

“For those who have forgotten the record of the Republicans in the Senate when it comes to delaying nominations, Exhibit A will continue to be the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court,” Mr Durbin said on the Senate floor.

“That vacancy continued for political reasons regardless of the fact that it created at least a hardship and some confusion on the highest court of the land. It went on for 10, 11 months and it continues to this day,” he added. 

Gen Mattis and Gen Kelly are retired Marine Corps generals. Federal law requires a seven-year waiting period between active duty and serving as secretary of defence; Congress passed legislation last week granting a waiver to Gen Mattis, and Mr Trump signed it on Friday (Jan 20).  

At a luncheon at the Capitol, Mr Trump said the generals in his Cabinet “are going to keep us so safe” while describing them as out of “central casting”. He also nudged Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York over the pending confirmations.  

“Our Cabinet’s lined up and ready,” he said. “I know eventually Chuck’s going to approve them, I’m sure. I really believe that.”