Defense Secretary Contender James Mattis Faces Legal Obstacle to Getting the Post

Congress could remove the obstacle.

Mattis retired in 2013, leaving him four years short of the requisite seven years after active duty before commissioned officers may serve as secretary of defense.

“That’s an important principle in democratic politics just because sometimes the military itself is not the best judge of American foreign policy,” said David E. Lewis, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.

Now that Mattis has emerged as a contender, questions have arisen about whether he could legally be confirmed for the post.

If precedent holds, Congress would have to pass a law to exempt him from the requirement.

The House and Senate passed the George C. Marshall Exemption Act, which made Marshall exempt from the waiting period.

Before the bill passed, however, Congress debated the wisdom of appointing a military officer as defense secretary.

But others argued in favor of Marshall, citing his extensive credentials. Sen. Harry Byrd of Virginia asserted, “Besieged as we are by perils on every side, I feel it is our obligation, as representatives of the people, to place in this position of authority a man who, above all others, is best capable to perform the duties of secretary of defense.”

A Mattis nomination could spark an equally spirited debate. But Lewis said some members of Congress might prefer that Trump’s defense secretary have extensive military experience.

ABC’s Ben Siegel and Luis Martinez contributed reporting.