Trump picks retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as Defense secretary
President-elect Donald Trump has chosen James N. Mattis, a highly respected retired Marine four-star general, to head the Defense Department, filling in a critical national security position in the emerging Cabinet.
Mattis served 44 years in the Marine Corps before he retired in 2013. He headed U.S. Central Command in his final three years and oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as other military operations in the Middle East.
Trump announced his pick Thursday night at a rally in Cincinnati, urging his supporters to keep the news quiet. “We’re not announcing it until Monday so don’t tell anybody,” he joked.
He compared Mattis to Gen. George Patton, the legendary front-line general who helped liberate Europe in World War II.
Unmarried all his life, Mattis, 66, was known as a hard-charging but scholarly figure who issued heavy reading lists to his subordinates and who carried “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius on his deployments.
In speeches, he was as likely to quote from Shakespeare or an ancient Greek poet as from traditional military strategists Carl von Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. His nicknames included “Mad Dog” and “Warrior Monk.”
“He is the combination of strategic thinker and successful operator at all levels of warfare,” said retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro and author of “On War and Politics: The Battlefield Inside Washington’s Beltway.” “His entire life has been learning about and implementing a strong national defense.”
The GOP-led Congress would need to grant Mattis a waiver to confirm him as head of the Pentagon because he has not been out of uniform for seven years. The limit was set under a law intended to maintain civilian control of the military.
Winning a waiver shouldn’t be difficult. Mattis has powerful backers in Congress, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who chairs the Armed Services Committee, which is responsible for overseeing the confirmation process.
“Gen. Mattis is one of the finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader who inspires a rare and special admiration of his troops,” McCain said after Mattis first emerged as a candidate.
Mattis clashed with White House aides before he retired over the Obama administration’s outreach to Iran, which he considered unwise. He was openly critical of the Iran nuclear deal that was signed after he left the military.
Mattis shares a deep distrust of Iran with Trump and Michael Flynn, a retired Army general who Trump has named as White House national security advisor. During the campaign, Trump called for ripping up or revising the nuclear deal.
“Among all the issues facing us in the Middle East, I think Iran is actually foremost,” Mattis said in April at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “And yet at the same time, it appears here in Washington that we’ve forgotten how to keep certain issues foremost.”
But more recently Mattis has said that it’s too late to rip up the Iran deal because it’s being implemented by the world powers who negotiated it with Tehran: the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany.
Whether he and Trump share the same worldview in other areas is unclear.
Trump pledged during the campaign to scale back America’s military involvement around the globe; Mattis has always espoused a muscular role to advance U.S. interests overseas.
Mattis has embraced diplomatic efforts to craft a two-state solution in Israel, backed Obama administration efforts to provide weapons to Syrian rebels, and he supports the NATO military alliance, all issues where he and Trump may disagree.
“We need to stay engaged in the world and resist isolationism,” Mattis said in August in a speech at Washington State University.
Mattis already has had an impact on Trump’s thinking. In a recent interview with the New York Times, the president-elect indicated he was reconsidering his calls for waterboarding terrorism suspects after talking to Mattis.
“He said — I was surprised — he said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’” Trump said. “He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.’ And I was very impressed by that answer.”
If confirmed, Mattis would oversee a Pentagon that is battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has lost ground to a renewed insurgency in Afghanistan, is grappling with Russian aggression in Ukraine and is facing a growing Chinese presence in the South China Sea.
Trump has vowed to boost Pentagon spending for more soldiers, ships and aircraft, and in a video this week, said he would seek a new strategy for cyberdefense.
A native of eastern Washington state, Mattis enlisted in the Marines in 1969 and was commissioned a second lieutenant through the ROTC program in 1972.
He commanded an assault battalion during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He led the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
He is best known for leading U.S. Marines into the battle of Fallouja in Iraq in late 2004.
Marines fought house-to-house for six weeks to oust entrenched Sunni insurgents. The battle saw the heaviest urban combat for the U.S. military since Vietnam. More than 90 Americans were killed and nearly 600 were wounded.
He gave each Marine a one-page “commander’s intent,” telling them the fight was against the Iraqi leadership, not the Iraqi people. Any Iraqi soldiers who surrendered should be treated with “soldierly compassion,” he wrote.
Mattis preferred to be close to the fighting, saying he disdains “chateau generals,” a World War I phrase for commanders who stayed in comfortable billets while their troops fought in the trenches.
He had an old-school military manner, gruff but polite. In 2004, he was typically blunt when he met with a group of Iraqi tribal sheikhs.
“I come here in peace to help you build a better Iraq,” he said. “I did not bring artillery. I tell you, with tears in my eyes, I do not want violence, but if your forces fight us, we will kill every one of them.”
A year later, Mattis was embroiled in controversy after a speech in San Diego.
“Actually, it’s a lot of fun to fight,” he said. “You know, it’s a hell of a hoot.... It’s fun to shoot some people. I’ll be right up front with you. I like brawling.”
“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”
While the mostly military and veteran crowd approved of his comments, his superiors told him to tone down his frankness.
In 2010, President Obama named Mattis to lead U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations across the Middle East, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Iran.
Since retiring, he has served on several corporate boards, including General Dynamics and Theranos, a controversial Silicon Valley biotech company.
Earlier this year, there was a grass roots effort by disaffected Republicans to recruit Mattis to run as a third-party candidate in the presidential race. He ultimately declined.
Under the National Security Act of 1947, the Secretary of Defense must be a civilian who has been out of uniform for at least 10 years, or must get a waiver. Congress lowered the limit to seven years in 2008.
Only one waiver has been sought. In 1950, President Truman nominated retired Army Gen. George Marshall to head the Pentagon at the outset of the Korean War. Marshall already had served as secretary of State, and Congress granted the exemption.
No waiver was necessary for Chuck Hagel, who was the only Vietnam War combat veteran to head the Pentagon. Hagel, a former Republican Senator from Nebraska, served as Defense secretary from 2013 to 2015 under President Obama.
Michael E. O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution in Washington, said few are likely to question granting Mattis a waiver.
“I lean towards preferring a nonmilitary civilian,” he said. “But I don’t feel so strongly as to sound major warning horns.”
5:35 p.m.: This article was updated with Trump making an announcement about Mattis at a rally.
This article was originally published at 5:25 p.m.
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our politics team.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.