It’s official: Donald Trump has chosen Gen. James Mattis for defense secretary
Donald Trump on Thursday announced retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as his pick for secretary of defense, tasking the popular military leader with carrying out the president-elect’s planned overhaul of Pentagon operations and a shift in national security priorities.
Speaking at a rally Thursday night in Cincinnati, Trump confirmed media reports published earlier in the day indicating the president-elect intended to nominate Mattis for the key Cabinet post.
Neither Mattis nor Trump’s transition team responded to Military Times’ requests for comment.
The 66-year-old retired general, who left active duty in 2013 after reportedly falling from favor with the Obama administration over disagreements about Iran, last served as the head of U.S. Central Command. The post afforded him oversight of all military activity in the Middle East, to include the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He will require a waiver from Congress to hold the Pentagon’s top post because law mandates a seven-year wait between active-duty service and working as defense secretary, a rule designed to reinforce the concept of civilian control of the military.
Mattis is widely respected on Capitol Hill, and likely won’t encounter any difficulty getting confirmed. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., has praised Mattis as “one of the finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader,” and has signaled Senate support for Trump’s choice, saying it won’t be a problem for Mattis to obtain the waiver he’ll need to serve as secretary.
Trump will look to Mattis, if confirmed, to help navigate a host of global security challenges: Washington’s standoff with Russia, China’s imperial ambitions, ongoing violence in Africa and the Middle East.
“The Afghan war is not going well,” said Peter Bergen, a military analyst and vice president of the New America think tank. “One of the first things the Trump administration needs to do is to figure out its policy there.”
Inside the Pentagon, Mattis was known for being assertive with the use of U.S. forces, said Bryan Clark, who was a top aide to Adm. Jon Greenert, the chief of naval operations from 2011 to 2015. Mattis leaned on the Navy to keep two aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf as a means to counter Iran, creating some strain on the service’s budget and resources.
“He pushed a lot more of a hawkish tone towards Iran” said Clark, now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “At the time, the Obama administration was trying to use the ‘carrot and stick’ method to get Iran to the table: The carrot being the nuclear negotiations and the sticks being the stepped up carrier presence. Mattis favored using the stick until the adversary cedes to your wishes — then bring out the carrots.”
During his final years of service, Mattis sparred often with Obama’s national security team. As the president moved to set up his nuclear agreement with Iran, Mattis publicly advocated his aggressive approach to confronting the regime he has come to view as the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East. Trump made this a key foreign policy point on the campaign trail, repeatedly blasting Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the nuclear deal.
While China and Russia might call for somewhat different approaches, Clark added that Mattis clearly believes in the power of U.S military muscle to solve problems. “He’ll look to be a lot more assertive in our disagreements with other nations,” Clark said. “… He postured a large amount of forces with a lot of capabilities in the places they’d want to cause trouble.”
The general enjoys a cult-like following among past and present military members — particularly infantry Marines and soldiers — inspired by his swashbuckling rhetoric about the realities of war. He is known by an array of nicknames and military callsigns, including Mad Dog, Chaos and Warrior Monk. The last derives from his bachelor status, a rarity among those who attain four-star status.
Regarded as an intellectual but tough-edged military leader, Mattis is known for his colorful quotes such as: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” His 44-year military career, which includes experience on the ground in combat, buoys his credibility. After their initial meeting on Nov. 19, Trump called Mattis “the real deal.”