Trump Picks General James Mattis for Defense Secretary, Though He’s Technically Ineligible

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Trump and Pence pose with Mattis after their meeting last month.Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

During the first stop on his post-election victory tour, Donald Trump announced that he’s selected retired Marine general James Mattis to be his secretary of Defense. Or rather, Trump announced that he intends to announce “Mad Dog” is his Defense secretary. He jokingly asked the crowd in Cincinnati to “keep it inside the room,” since the official reveal is slated for Monday.

Mattis, 66, is one of the most respected and influential military leaders of his generation. Over a 41-year career, Mattis led an assault battalion into Kuwait in the first Iraq war, commanded the first post-9/11 Marine assault in Afghanistan, establishing a U.S. foothold in the country, and took a Marine division into Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was NATO’s supreme allied commander of transformation from 2007 to 2010, then served as chief of U.S. Central Command, overseeing U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia until his retirement in 2013.

But as with pretty much every one of Trump’s picks so far, there’s a catch: Technically, Mattis can’t serve as secretary of Defense, because there’s a law barring retired military officers from that position for seven years after leaving active duty. The law is in place to ensure that the armed forces remain under civilian control, so Mattis would need a special congressional waiver to serve as Defense secretary. Congress granted a waiver once before, but that was for General George Marshall, who led the army during World War II and served as Defense secretary from 1950 to 1951, during the Korean War.

When Congress passed a waiver for Marshall, a report accompanying the legislation said it did not intend to set a precedent. Shortly after Trump’s announcement, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said she plans to vote against a waiver. “While I deeply respect General Mattis’s service, I will oppose a waiver,” she said in a statement. “Civilian control of our military is a fundamental principle of American democracy, and I will not vote for an exception to this rule.”

Senator John McCain, who sits on the Armed Services committee with Gillibrand, is one of Mattis’s biggest supporters. He said on Thursday night, “America will be fortunate to have General Mattis in its service once again.”

Retired Army lieutenant general Mick Bednarek, who was the top U.S. military adviser in Iraq until last year, told Politico he doesn’t think the law will prevent his former colleague from serving. “Waivers are waivers,” he said. “In the case of Jim Mattis, that would not be too contentious. The real issue is his views and perspectives.”

Those views and perspectives include many that contradict the president-elect’s. Mattis has criticized the Obama administration’s approach to defeating ISIS, and there are reports that he retired several months early because he was considered too hawkish on Iran. He’s called Iran “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” but unlike his future boss, he thinks it’s too late for the U.S. to back out of the Iran nuclear deal. Mattis is also against cozying-up to Russia, and he told Trump last month that torture doesn’t work.

Mattis criticized Trump during the campaign, calling his claim that NATO is obsolete “kooky,” and saying his talk about banning Muslim immigrants makes U.S. allies think “we have lost faith in reason.” The general was courted by both Trump and Clinton to speak at their political conventions, and some wanted him to run for president as an independent.

In a normal year, there might be more controversy over Mattis serving on the board of the embattled biotech company Theranos, his views on women in combat, and his history of blunt remarks. (“You go into Afghanistan, you got guys that slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil,” he said in 2005. “So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”) But the incoming administration has far bigger issues surrounding business conflicts, sexism, and salty language.

In many ways, Mattis and Trump could not be more dissimilar. The general is known as the “warrior monk” for the extensive library he carried from post to post, which includes classical literature and books on military history. It’s a safe bet that Mattis hasn’t seen Trump on The Apprentice, since he’s never even owned a TV.