Teams of lawyers on Capitol Hill wrestled on Friday with how to allow retired 4-star Marine General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, 66, to take up the post, ahead of his scheduled meeting with President Elect Donald Trump in New York on Saturday. Mattis would add to a cabinet of national security super-hawks and signal a return to a more aggressive defense of U.S. interests abroad.
“I’m a great admirer of Gen. Mattis,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain with a grin, refusing to confirm that the blunt-speaking general is in the running, but warmly endorsing the idea.
“I think one of the reasons why it would be good to have him is that he has recent combat experience in both theaters (Iraq and Afghanistan). So he really understands complex situations on the ground,” McCain told The Daily Beast, on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum. McCain’s committee must confirm roughly 50+ defense-related posts for the new administration, chief among them the defense secretary.
Mattis has only been out of the military for four years, not the seven years required by law, so Congress would have to design a workaround—and a senator and a senior congressional staffer both tell The Daily Beast that they’re working on it. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the still-evolving matter.
Retired four-star Gen. David Petraeus is also in the running for the top defense post—and he also hasn’t been out of uniform long enough to legally serve as defense secretary—but the sources say Mattis has been the main focus of the discussions in Congress.
“It would require a waiver, but that has happened in the past,” McCain said.
“As dire a situation as it is, I think he is by far the most qualified individual,” said McCain, long a critic of the Trump campaign, did not explain whether “dire” referred to the ongoing fight against the so-called Islamic State, or his personal outlook on a Trump administration to come.
“He’d be a fantastic defense secretary, added Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, also at the Halifax forum. “Knows the people, knows the military, tough as nails….He’s be exactly what this country needs in a tumultuous time.”
On Friday, the Trump campaign announced its first key appointments—with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn named National Security Adviser, Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions to the Attorney General post, and Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas to head the CIA.
Both Mattis and Petraeus did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Mattis retired after leading Central Command from 2010 to 2013, managing conflicts across the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, and clashing with an Obama administration he saw as too weak and passive in its dealings with terrorists, and too eager to withdraw troops from Iraq and draw down troops in Afghanistan.
Beloved by his fellow Marines for his straight talk and salty language, the “warrior monk” was the subject of a conservative campaign to draft him to run against Trump for President.
“He’s a man of character and integrity. He’s given his life to his country,” said John Noonan, a former Jeb Bush aide who was involved in the project to draft Mattis to “save America.” Mattis demurred.
Military historian Max Boot said Mattis has a Patton-like reputation for outspokenness, citing comments at a 2005 conference: “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap around women 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.”
Mattis has been more blunt in scathing testimony to Congress, decrying the Obama administration’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan, and calling for the U.S. to emerge from its “reactive crouch.”
After he took the helm of Central Command, he ran afoul of Obama administration officials for his privately blunt comments, criticizing the White House for everything from telegraphing a timeline for the U.S. departure from Afghanistan to the enemy, to failing to prepare to battle an expansionist Iran.
“The international order… is not self sustaining. It demands tending by an America that leads wisely, standing unapologetically… in defense of our values,” Mattis said.
Among Marines, his direct comments are known as #mattisisms, and traded on military forums like pearls of wisdom to live, laugh and fight by, including: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”
Tim Mak reported from Halifax, Nova Scotia.