Trump taps retired general ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as defense secretary

President-elect Donald Trump will nominate retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who led operations across the Middle East, to be secretary of defense.

Mattis, 66, served in the U.S. Marine Corps for more than four decades. Originally from Pullman, Washington, he enlisted in 1969 and went on to serve in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Iraq. He served as the head of U.S. Central Command, overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, before retiring from the military in 2013.

“We are going to appoint ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis as our secretary of defense,” Trump said at a his first post-election rally in Cincinnati Thursday night.

An official announcement is expected Monday.

Trump touted Mattis as “one of our great, great generals . . . the closest thing we have to General George Patton of our time.”

Among lawmakers who have met the retired Marine general —even Democrats — the impression they take away is often positive.

“I continue to admire his service, knowledge, experience and leadership,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, top Democrat on the House intelligence committee.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, whose committee would hold nomination hearings, said was pleased with the choice.

“He is without a doubt one of the finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader who inspires a rare and special admiration of his troops,” McCain said. “General Mattis has a clear understanding of the many challenges facing the Department of Defense, the U.S. military, and our national security.”

“I don’t think he has a TV in his house, but he has 10,000 books and those are just the ones that he kept after he read them,” Mike Rogers, a former Republican congressman who chaired the House intelligence panel, said of Mattis Thursday.

“The guy is brilliant, he’s a brilliant strategist, he’s a brilliant tactician and the guy is a fierce warrior. He’s an internationalist. So the notion that you hire a general to go break things, it’s counter-intuitive when you meet a guy like General Mattis” Rogers said during a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mattis is popular among rank-and-file Marines with whom he served, known as a no-nonsense fighter given to pithy aphorisms. Do a word search on “Mattis” to find lists of so-called “Mattisisms,” sometimes laced with salty language.

One is: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” Another went: “I’m going to plead with you, do not cross us. Because if you do, the survivors will write about what we do here for 10,000 years.”

Outside of combat arenas, though, Mattis was more often known as a “warrior monk,” schooled in strategy and international affairs.

“I wouldn’t look at it as, ‘This guy is ready to pull a saber and charge the hill.’ You might think that with some of his language when he’s talking to Marines who are combatants. But when you talk to him about strategy and global engagement, you will have a very different conversation,” Rogers said.

Mattis had combat experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq before assuming as commander of Central Command, the Tampa, Florida-based regional military command for operations in the Middle East.

Mattis sometimes clashed with civilians in the Obama administration who he saw as indecisive in fighting Islamic extremism, too ready to pull troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. His tough posture made him the subject of a brief campaign by conservatives to draft him to run against Trump for president. 

Since Mattis left active duty in the military only four years ago, not the seven years required by federal law to assume the secretary of defense post, Congress will have to design legislation in order to confirm him.

The last defense secretary to receive such a waiver was Gen. George Marshal, a World War II hero granted a waiver by Congress in 1950. Marshal went on to desgined the recovery plan for Europe that bears his name.

Mattis met with Trump for an hour at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J. on Nov. 19. Three days later, he was back in Kennewick, Washington, where he has a residence, for jury duty.

“They say he’s the finest there is,” Trump told the New York Times in an interview last month. “General Mattis is a strong, highly dignified man.”

Trump said he was surprised when Mattis told him he had never found torture to be a useful interrogation tool.

“He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture,’” Trump said Mattis told him. “I was surprised, because he’s known as being like the toughest guy.”

After leaving the military, Mattis served as a national security fellow at the Hoover Institution, a public policy think tank at Stanford University in California. He still has a residence in Richland and is registered to vote in the state of Washington.

Rob Hotakainen contributed.

Anita Kumar: 202-383-6017, @anitakumar01

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4