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Mattis calls Russia strategic competitor in rebuff of Trump

| Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, 10:27 p.m.
Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Defense secretary nominee James Mattis branded Russia a “strategic competitor” with which the United States will find little common ground, making him the latest of President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet picks to break with their boss on the wisdom of seeking better ties with Vladimir Putin.

“I'm all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality in what Russia is up to, and there's a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee as it considered his nomination Thursday. The former Marine general's assessment echoed that of committee Chairman John McCain, who said Russia “will never be our partner.”

The retired general's strong endorsement of NATO, the alliance that was formed to counter Soviet aggression during the Cold War, marked a turn of events in which nominees directly challenged Trump's campaign vision of cooperation.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson called Russia a “danger” whose actions run counter to U.S. interests. On Thursday, Representative Mike Pompeo said in a statement issued shortly before his confirmation hearing for CIA director that “Russia has reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe, and doing nearly nothing to aid in the destruction of ISIS.”

In a sign of strong bipartisan support for Mattis, the Senate on Thursday passed a waiver from a law barring anyone from serving as secretary of Defense within seven years of leaving the military. Mattis retired in 2013. The exemption legislation passed the Senate, 81 to 17, and the House is expected to clear the measure on Friday.

Mattis sought to assuage broad concerns among lawmakers that the United States will step back from its leadership in the world, saying in his opening statement that “we must also embrace our international alliances and security partnerships. History is clear: Nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither.”

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