By Kristina Wong and Rebecca Kheel - 01-12-17 14:14 PM EST
Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis on Thursday cruised through his confirmation hearing despite senators' attempts to draw him out in areas where he might disagree with President-elect Donald Trump.
The Senate Armed Services Committee afterward easily passed a waiver exempting Mattis from a law that requires Defense secretaries to be retired from military service for at least seven years.
The vote was 24-3, with Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), a Marine veteran, voting in the opposition.
Perhaps in a sign of how smoothly the hearing went, a handful of anti-war Code Pink members, who typically protest at the committee's hearings, stayed silent throughout, only holding up peace signs with their hands and even clapping at times.
Many of the questions focused on getting Mattis to break with Trump on the record, particularly on Russia.
Mattis obliged, calling Russia the "principal threat" to U.S. security.
Trump has said he wants to improve relations with Moscow and complimented Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader. He's also dismissed the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the election by hacking Democratic Party systems, treating the assessment as an attack on his legitimacy.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the committee, set the tone right away, saying in his opening statement that "Putin wants to be our enemy" and that Putin has left "a trail of death and destruction in his wake."
McCain highlighted past presidents' failed attempts to engage Putin and asked whether Mattis thinks the U.S. should learn from that.
"History is not a straight jacket, but I've never found a better guide," Mattis responded, adding that there is a "relatively short list of successes" in bettering relations with Russia.
Mattis later added that the U.S. needs to face the reality that Russia has chosen to be a "strategic competitor."
Still, the retired general said, the U.S. found a way to work with Russia in some areas even during the depths of the Cold War and could do so again.
Mattis also broke with Trump on NATO, calling it the "most successful military alliance probably in modern world history, maybe ever."
Trump had blasted NATO as obsolete on the campaign trail, saying it needed to do more to fight terrorism. He's also questioned whether he would come to the defense of allies that are attacked if they haven't met their defense funding goals.
But Mattis said he was "confident" the U.S. would continue living up to its mutual defense commitments under NATO. He also suggested Trump might be open to accepting his view on NATO.
"He's shown himself open even to the point of asking questions and going deeper into the issue about why I stand where I stand," Mattis said.
Senators also tried to bait Mattis on other areas of potential friction with Trump, including on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Trump's pledge to move Israel's capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) criticized Trump's tweets bashing the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, and asked Mattis what he thought about them.
Mattis at first demurred, but later said he found "common ground" with Trump on it.
"That's where I find common ground with him," he added. "I see his statements [as] showing his serious side about keeping costs under control."
Mattis went even further later on, under questioning from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas): "Trump has in no way shown a lack of support for the F-35 program."
But Mattis also called the aircraft "critical to our own air superiority," reassuring those worried about the future of the program.
Mattis also would not comment directly on Trump's tweet that he would prevent North Korea from developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S., instead agreeing it was a "serious threat."
"I believe we got to do something about it," he said. "I don't think we should take anything off the table."
On whether he would support moving the capital of Israel to Jerusalem, Mattis said he would defer to the president-elect.
Despite the handful of "no" votes, both Republicans and Democrats even before the hearing expressed positive views on Mattis. Many who opposed Trump's candidacy are hopeful that Mattis can provide a voice of reason within the administration.
Warren sought assurances from Mattis that he would advocate for his views "frankly and forcefully," and stand up to others within the administration.
Mattis promised he would "on every issue."
"I am very glad to hear that," Warren said with a laugh. "We are counting on you."
Several Democratic senators also pressed him on his past statements on women in combat and LGBT troops.
Mattis has expressed skepticism in the past about whether women are suited for what he termed "intimate killing" and has blasted civilian leaders with a "progressive agenda" pushing "social change" on the military.
Gillibrand used the entirety of her time to press the issue, asking him whether he's changed his views on allowing women into the infantry, whether he still thinks love will interfere when men and women serve together in combat and whether gay troops are undermining the military's lethality.
Mattis explained his past comments by saying he was "not in a position to go back into government when made those statements."
He avoided giving a firm yes or no when Gillibrand asked about lethality, but later told Hirono "no" when asked if there's anything innate about being a woman or LGBT that would prevent them from serving in a lethal force.
He also assured the senators that he won't oppose allowing women into combat roles if they meet standards and said he wouldn't roll back rules allowing LGBT troops to serve openly, unless a service chief presents him with a problem that's arisen from those policies.
"I never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with," Mattis said.