WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump announced Thursday that he has selected James Mattis, a legendary, tough-talking retired Marine Corps general who favors a robust military and criticized the Obama administration's approach to war, to lead the Defense Department.
Trump joked about the announcement at a rally Thursday night in Cincinnati.
"We are going to appoint 'Mad Dog' Mattis as our Secretary of Defense," Trump said. "But we're not announcing it 'til Monday, so don't tell anybody."
Mattis retired in 2013 after leading the military’s Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East and Africa. He will require a waiver from Congress to become Defense secretary because the law prohibits veterans who have been retired for fewer than seven years from taking the job. That is expected to be a formality, given support for him from many in Congress, including Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., the influential chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
Mattis made headlines at a series of prominent commands with blunt talk that appealed to troops and left no doubt about his approach to war. After leading troops in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, he told an audience in San Diego in 2005 that he relished fighting.
"Actually it's quite fun to fight them, you know. It's a hell of a hoot," Mattis said. "It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up there 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."
Those remarks earned him a rebuke from his superiors but didn’t stop his ascent to the military’s most prestigious and taxing posts. Known as the “Warrior Monk,” Mattis also cultivates a bookish reputation.
Mattis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and has continued to speak out about military policy in retirement. In 2014, he criticized the Obama administration’s plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2016, a stand that it has abandoned in favor of leaving about 10,000 troops there to train local forces and fight terrorists.
Deadlines for withdraw, Mattis said then, simply embolden American enemies.
“We want to crush the enemy’s hope to win through violence,” Mattis said. “Yet we have now given the enemy hope that if they hang on until our announced withdrawal date they can perhaps come back.”
Mattis’ views may mesh with Trump’s calls to beef up the military and more aggressively prosecute the war against Islamic State terrorists.
As Defense secretary, Mattis will inherit the ongoing air war in Iraq and Syria, as well as the thousands of U.S. troops on the ground there who training local forces and elite commandos who are targeting leaders of the terrorist organization, also known as ISIL. The war against Taliban insurgents and al Qaeda-linked terrorists in Afghanistan will grind on as well.
He’ll be responsible for more than 1 million active-duty troops and a budget of more than $600 billion annually.
Also on his plate: the increasingly aggressive Russian military, which has seized Crimea from Ukraine and regularly harasses U.S. ships and warplanes operating in international waters and airspace in Europe; and China’s mounting ambitions in the South China Sea where it has built artificial islands and fortified them with landing strips and troops.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in New York Thursday, and met with Michael Flynn, Trump's choice to be national security adviser. Gates' top priority at the Pentagon, while the wars raged in Iraq and Afghanistan, was the fielding of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles to protect troops from roadside bombs.
In 2005, Mattis was the top officer at the Marine Corps command that allowed a request to field the urgently needed combat trucks to languish. A 2008 Pentagon inspector general report singled out his Marine Corps Combat Development Command for failing to act on an urgent plea for MRAPs to replace vulnerable Humvees.
It wasn't until 2007, after Gates read about the trucks' superior protection in a story in USA TODAY, that he forced the Pentagon bureaucracy to buy them to replace Humvees. The Pentagon and Gates credit MRAPs with saving the lives of thousands of troops.