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Trump Picks Retired Marine Corps Gen. Mattis As Defense Secretary


President-elect Trump resumed campaign-style rallies last night, appearing in Cincinnati. And he told supporters he was going to share a secret.


DONALD TRUMP: We are going to appoint Mad Dog Mattis...


TRUMP: ...As our secretary of defense.


TRUMP: But we're not announcing it till Monday, so don't tell anybody.

INSKEEP: So there you go. You got the inside information. It's under wraps till Monday. Mad Dog Mattis - that's Marine General James Mad Dog Mattis. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has known him for some time. He's in our studios. Good morning, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is James Mattis?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, he really is a living legend in the Marine Corps, and I don't use that term lightly. He's known for his fighting ability and his famous sayings, like no better friend, no worse enemy. He would tell his Marines be polite and professional but have a plan to kill everyone you meet. Now, Mattis led the Marines into Baghdad back in 2003, and he relieved an officer for not being aggressive enough. As far as I know, it was the only commander relieved from duty for that, for not being aggressive enough. And Mattis was portrayed in the HBO series "Generation Kill," and here's a scene where he basically complains to this officer.


ROBERT JOHN BURKE: (As General James Mattis) This is just a [expletive] side show. You had 7,000 Marine riflemen who have been ready to go for the past 24 hours and you're standing here with your foot in your [expletive]. No. Check that. Not your [expletive]. My [expletive].

INSKEEP: OK, so that's dramatized, but is that kind of how Mattis may talk from time to time?

BOWMAN: Yes, in the real world - and that scene actually did happen. He did relieve that colonel. He did have words with him - some salty words, clearly. And so he actually did relieve him. But Mattis, you know, is also not just a blood-and-guts kind of guy. He's also a scholar. He has a library of thousands of volumes, including some of the classics. He's been known to carry "The Meditations Of Marcus Aurelius" with him into combat.

INSKEEP: This is a Roman emperor who was also considered kind of a philosopher.

BOWMAN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: All right.

BOWMAN: And besides Mad Dog, he's also known as the warrior monk.

INSKEEP: The warrior monk.

BOWMAN: Right.

INSKEEP: OK, so a thoughtful guy...

BOWMAN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...As well as as a tough guy. But there is one concern that's been raised here, and that is there's supposed to be civilian control of the military in the United States - vital principle. And when the Department of Defense was established, they also established a law saying any secretary of defense, if he's been in the military in the past, needs to have been out for seven years. Mattis hasn't been - less than four years. Is that a big deal?

BOWMAN: Well, I don't think it will be a big deal on the Hill. He has a great deal of support on the Hill from both Democrats and Republicans.

INSKEEP: And they could grant a waiver of the seven-year rule.

BOWMAN: Well, it's going to be necessary to get this waiver from the Hill before he takes the job. But, you know, some are concerned about it. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has come out against him, saying civilian control of the military is very important. And some people I talked with at the Pentagon, Steve, who like Mattis and would love to work for him, they're a bit wary about this, too. They say, you know, it's maybe not a good idea to have a recently retired general running this place - again, civilian control of the military.

Now, I'm told one senator actually tried to slip in a waiver for Mattis into the defense authorization bill that failed. Democrats and Republicans basically said, listen, we're going to have a full hearing on this, a full airing of whether this is a good idea or not. We don't want to just slip it into some bill. So look for, you know, hearings both likely in the Senate and the House as well, and, again, a full airing of all of this.

INSKEEP: OK. So yeah, this is something that has happened one time before. George Marshall, a famous American general, became became defense secretary, secretary of state as well after the war.

BOWMAN: And at the time, there was a lot of talk then about do we want to have a general running the Pentagon, and of course, Marshall was seen as an icon.

INSKEEP: So your understanding is lawmakers are going to have a full discussion of that. Let's talk about substance here, about policy, because Mattis, while he's respected, had differences with the Obama administration, particularly in how to approach Iran. What was the difference?

BOWMAN: Well, he was concerned, I think, about Iran. He wanted to have a much tougher policy toward them.

INSKEEP: Oh, and we have a little bit of tape here of James Mattis talking about this very same thing. This is a talk he gave last April, so it's after his retirement. He's talking about Iran in the midst of the U.S. making a nuclear deal with Iran.

BOWMAN: Right.


JAMES MATTIS: The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East. For all of ISIS and al-Qaida's mention everywhere right now, they're an immediate threat. They're serious. Certainly, Assad and Syria and what it's spewing out is a very serious threat. But nothing, I believe, is as serious in the long term enduring ramifications in terms of stability and prosperity and some hope for a better future for the young people out there than Iran.

INSKEEP: OK, so definite concerns about Iran. But there will be questions on the table. For example, does the United States try to get out of the Iran nuclear deal right away or try to approach Iran in some different way while accepting that the deal is there?

BOWMAN: Right. I don't think you're going to see any tearing up of the agreement from Mattis or anyone else. But I think what you'll see is a working with the allies to make sure Iran lives up to the agreement. And you're likely going to see Mattis and others, including Mike Flynn, another retired general who's going to be the national security adviser, push for countering Iran in other areas, like Syria or like Iraq or Yemen. This is what you'll likely see from both of them.

INSKEEP: Then there's ISIS. Mattis would be working, if confirmed, for a president who said he wanted to bomb the stuffing out of ISIS using a different word. What's Mattis think here?

BOWMAN: You're likely going to see a more aggressive policy toward ISIS. There are some restrictions now on what Americans can do, how close they can be to the front lines, how many, you know, bombing strikes there can be. There's a concern about civilian casualties with that. So likely a much more aggressive policy toward ISIS, retaking Raqqa in Syria, their capital, and also Mosul, so look for that. But it could lead, again, to more American deaths and maybe even more civilian deaths.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks very much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman this morning talking about Donald Trump - President-Elect Trump's choice of James Mattis to be defense secretary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.