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Opinion Talent still in the mix for defense secretary

Vice President-elect Mike Pence and President-elect Donald Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus defend Trump’s picks for his incoming administration. (Video: Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post;Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post;Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

This weekend saw a flurry of speculation that retired Marine Gen. James Mattis has emerged as President-elect Donald Trump’s leading pick for secretary of defense. But inside the Trump transition, there’s still a big push for former senator Jim Talent (R-Mo.).

Talent, who met with Trump last week, is favored by those inside the Trump camp who believe a civilian should lead the Pentagon, not a former military officer. Talent’s supporters include incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who also has supported consideration of former national security adviser Stephen Hadley, two sources involved in the transition process said. Although Hadley’s chances are deemed slim, Talent is considered to be the top contender among candidates for defense secretary who are not former generals.

Talent may also find support from an unlikely source: incoming national security adviser Mike Flynn, a retired three star general who last headed the Defense Intelligence Agency. Sources said Flynn, who is heavily involved in the national security personnel transition discussions, doesn’t want any military officer who outranked him to be part of the Trump Cabinet.

General James Mattis has been confirmed as secretary of defense (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/The Washington Post)

Also, unlike Mattis, Talent would not require a waiver for the law that requires any defense secretary to be at least seven years removed from active-duty service. Former House intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers, who was head of the Trump national security transition team before being ousted earlier this month, on Monday explained the rationale for the law.

“You don’t want a military attitude in the civilian position,” Rogers told CNN. “When you get to that defense secretary role, it has to be a broader, strategic impact brought to any decision you make in any strategic event you make around the world.”

Rogers also pointed out that a new administration would have to spend political capital to get Mattis a waiver to get around that law. “And that should be a factor when you are considering if you want this person to be your next secretary of defense,” he said.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is already investigating the process for getting Mattis that waiver, the Daily Beast reported Nov. 18, and Mattis is heavily supported by Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain told an audience at the Halifax International Security Forum that he has spoken directly with Trump about the defense secretary appointment.

McCain also suggested to Trump retired Gen. Jack Keane and outgoing Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). Keane told NPR that Trump offered him the defense secretary position but he declined. Transition sources told me no formal offer was extended but Keane took himself out of the running due to a personal family tragedy. Trump took Ayotte off the list because she did not support his candidacy at the very end of the campaign.

Mattis is widely admired by Republicans and Democrats in Washington because of his reputation as a warrior monk who is known for speaking his mind, often in pithy quotes. His supporters were encouraged when Trump tweeted praise after their meeting, calling Mattis “A true General’s General!” But those pushing for Talent argue he would also receive bipartisan support and quick confirmation from his former senate colleagues.

Talent supported different candidates throughout the Republican primaries, starting with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and then Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). But he never outwardly opposed Trump by signing any of the many letters Republican national security officials composed to protest Trump becoming commander in chief. After the primary, Talent spoke out forcefully for Trump and against Hillary Clinton.

If Trump does choose Talent, it would be a signal to the foreign policy community that he intends to build bridges with a part of the GOP establishment that remains very wary of his plans for the United States’ role abroad.

In addition to serving in the House and Senate, Talent was a scholar at the Heritage Foundation for many years and is now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He also has broad experience on national security issues outside the Middle East. He served for four years on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and has contributed to major strategic defense studies including the Quadrennial Defense Review and the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

The question is whether Trump is interested in a senior foreign policy civilian or a general with warfighting experience atop the Pentagon. The appointment is also a test of who, if anybody, really has Trump’s ear on national security.