Trump's Pick For Defense Secretary Known For Independent Thinking

Dec 2, 2016
Originally published on December 5, 2016 11:44 am
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Let's take a look now at Retired General James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for secretary of defense. Mattis is a battle-hardened, highly-decorated Marine. Like Trump, he's known for speaking his mind. And there are questions about how much the two men will agree on the issues they'll face together. NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: When President-elect Trump broke the news at a rally last night in Cincinnati that he'd picked James Mattis for his defense secretary, he dispensed with the man's military title and used his colorful nickname instead.

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DONALD TRUMP: We are going to appoint Mad Dog Mattis as our secretary of defense.

WELNA: If the 66-year-old general has not yet become a household name, Trump compared him to a general who has.

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TRUMP: They say he is the closest thing to General George Patton that we have, and it's about time. It's about time.

WELNA: Like that World War II military hero, Mattis has a reputation for being both tough and salty. Here he is in 2005 talking to troops in San Diego about fighting the Taliban.

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JAMES MATTIS: Actually, it's a lot of fun to fight them, you know? It's a hell of a hoot. It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up on you. I like brawling.

WELNA: That rough edge might seem to mesh well with Trump and his predilection for tough talk. Whether the two men agree on other matters remains an open question. Philip Gordon is a former coordinator for the Middle East at the Obama White House.

PHILIP GORDON: Obviously, he's a hard-charging guy. He's got lots of ideas of his own, independent thinker, and so, sure, he could easily clash with other members of the cabinet or the president-elect.

WELNA: One area where Trump and Mattis may not see eye-to-eye, Gordon says, is Russia with which Trump has been friendly, and NATO, the U.S.-European military alliance that's Moscow's nemesis.

GORDON: Mattis is a real hard-liner. He's worked at NATO before. He's been critical of Russia and supportive of NATO and traditional allies, whereas the president-elect has suggested NATO is obsolete.

WELNA: Mattis' hard-line views on Iran put him at odds with the Obama administration when he was the top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. That appears to have prompted his removal from that post in 2013. Speaking earlier this year at a conference in Washington, Mattis showed no signs of having changed his views on Iran.

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MATTIS: The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single-most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.

WELNA: But while Trump has spoken of dismantling the Iran nuclear deal signed last year, Mattis, earlier this year, dismissed undoing that arms limitation agreement.

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MATTIS: There's no going back absent a real violation - I mean, a clear and present violation that was enough to stimulate the European action as well, I don't think that we can take advantage of some new president - Republican or Democrat - and say, well, we're not going to live up to our word on this agreement.

WELNA: It's that kind of restraint that has some military experts hoping Mattis will be a moderating influence on an unseasoned president. They also point to Trump telling The New York Times he was surprised to hear Mattis telling him that torture doesn't work. Michael O'Hanlon specializes in military affairs at the Brookings Institution.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: I actually think General Mattis is more likely to understand the limits of military force and the triumphs, essentially, of politics over hard power more than Donald Trump. So, in other words, Mattis knows from his long career what the military can do but also what it can't do.

WELNA: The overall worldview of the general in line for defense secretary is anything but optimistic. Speaking last spring at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Mattis called the future of the Middle East ghastly.

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MATTIS: The bottom line on the American situation I think it's quite clear that the next president is going to inherit a mess. That's probably the most diplomatic word you can use for it.

WELNA: Mattis will need a waiver from Congress to get around the rule that a secretary of defense has to have been out of uniform for at least seven years. If confirmed, which appears likely, he'd be only the second career military officer to head the Pentagon and the fifth man to occupy that post in only the last seven years. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.