Retired Gen. James Mattis on Thursday cruised toward likely confirmation as Donald Trump's defense secretary, overwhelmingly prevailing in a Senate vote granting him an exemption to run the Pentagon as a recently retired officer, the AP reports. At his confirmation hearing, he called Russia the nation's No. 1 security threat, accusing its leader of trying to "break" NATO. The Senate voted 81-17 to approve legislation overriding a prohibition against former US service members who have been out of uniform less than seven years from holding the Defense Department's top job. The restriction is meant to preserve civilian control of the military. The House is scheduled to vote on Friday. Separate from the override legislation, the Senate will vote later on Mattis' nomination, which is seen as all but certain to be confirmed.
Mattis, 66, spent four decades in uniform, retiring in 2013 with a reputation as an effective combat leader and an astute strategist. The only other exception to the rule was made for the legendary George Marshall in 1950, the year Mattis was born. Even some of Trump's strongest critics have supported the waiver for Mattis, arguing that his experience and temperament can serve as a steadying influence on a new president with no experience in national security. At an uncontentious confirmation hearing, Mattis sketched an international security scene dominated by dark images of an aggressive Russia, resurgent China, and violent Mideast. He described Iran as a major destabilizing force, called North Korea a potential nuclear threat, and said the US military needs to grow larger and readier for combat. (Read more Lt. Gen. James Mattis stories.)