Trump’s pick for defense secretary made the remarks under questioning from Democratic senators during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) questioned Mattis about LGBT military service as part of a series of inquiries about the upcoming administration’s views on greater inclusiveness in the U.S. military under President Obama.
After referencing a book Mattis co-authored, titled “Warriors & Citizens: American Views of Our Military,” which expresses skepticism about a “progressive agenda” seeking to impose “social change” on the military, Gillibrand whether Mattis whether he thinks allowing service from women in combat and gay people is undermining the military.
Asserting his priority is ensuring the military is so lethal on the battlefield “it’ll be the enemy’s longest day and their worst day,” Mattis indicated he doesn’t plan to reverse the changes in the U.S. military for gay and female service members.
“I believe that military service is a touchstone for patriots of whatever stripe,” Mattis said. “It’s simply the way that they demonstrate their commitment. And I believe that right now the policies that are in effect — unless a service chief brings something to me where there’s a problem that’s been proven — then I’m not going in with the idea that I’m going to review these and right away start rolling something back.”
Asked if allowing LGBT people or women in combat is undermining lethality, Mattis said he doesn’t think sexual orientation should be a factor in military service.
“Frankly, senator, I’ve never cared much about two consenting adults — who they go to bed with,” Mattis said.
When Gillibrand sought to verify whether the answer is “no,” Mattis affirmed his concerns are elsewhere.
“Senator, my concern is with the readiness of the force to fight and to make certain that it’s at the top of its game, so that when we go up against an enemy, the criteria for everything we do in the military up until that point when we put our young men and women across the line of departure is they will be at their most lethal stance,” Mattis said. “That’s my obligation as I move into this job.”
Gillibrand added she wanted confirmation from Mattis in writing about his views as she was cut off by Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-Ariz.), who said her time expired and advised her to follow the rules of the Senate.
Also questioning Mattis about LGBT military service was Sen. Mazie Hirono, who asked whether there’s something innate about LGBT people or women that would preclude them from being part of a lethal force. Mattis replied simply, “No.”
Later during the hearing Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said at the end of her questioning she had inquiries for Mattis on women in combat and LGBT people. but would submit them for the record.
When Congress repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010, it left nothing in the law’s place instructing the armed forces on the way to handle enlistment of openly lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the armed forces. Conceivably, Mattis could decide to reinstate a form of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” administratively, or Congress could restore the law, but that’s difficult to imagine given military leaders have accepted the change and trained the services accordingly.
Just last year, the Pentagon decided to lift its ban on transgender people in the armed forces. The decision was internal as a result of a decision from outgoing Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Mattis could undo it in the next administration.
Mattis’ lack of interest in reversing LGBT inclusion in the armed forces is consistent remarks at the 2016 International LGBT Leaders Conference from Army Secretary Eric Fanning, who said the Trump transition team has expressed interest not in undermining openly LGBT service, but national security and budgetary issues.
In a joint statement, leaders of LGBT military groups — American Military Partner Association President Ashley Broadway-Mack and OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Matt Thorn — said they’re “heartened” by Mattis’ remarks on keeping LGBT military service in place.
“We are heartened by Gen. Mattis’ stated commitment during his testimony not to reverse the profound progress we have made in ensuring LGBT service members and their families are able to serve our nation with pride,” Broadway-Mack and Thorn said. “Because questions had been raised about his commitment on this front, uncertainty in the future had given our military families great cause for concern. His comments today give us hope for a working relationship between our organizations and the new Defense Department leadership.”