Monk pose.

Photographer: CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images

Why Trump's Washington Loves 'Mad Dog' Mattis

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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It says something about Donald Trump that a retired Marine general nicknamed "Mad Dog" is uniting the divided swamp the next president has promised to drain.

It's true. Democrats and Republicans, NeverTrump and NeverHillary, the alt-right and the wonky cucks of the GOP all agree: James Mattis for Secretary of Defense. So far, the swamp looks like it will get its wish. Mattis visited Trump Saturday in New Jersey and Republican sources are chattering that he is now the front-runner to be the civilian leader of the world's greatest military.

This news was greeted with bipartisan relief here at the Halifax International Security Forum, an annual conference in Nova Scotia that brings together foreign policy elites from Western democracies. For the most part, this is not Trump country. It is however, Mattis country.

Let's start with some progressives. "Given the range of people who have been suggested, I think he will be a good choice," Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen told me.

"I have not met General Mattis," Senator Chris Coons, another Democrat, said. "But by his reputation he is seasoned and capable military officer. Obviously he deserves a full and fair hearing."

Heather Hurlburt, the director of the New Models of Policy Change initiative at the New America think tank, said, "Mattis is respected by people I respect."

I know what you're thinking. The swamp has already gotten to the Donald. He's nominating a squish to appease the Georgetown set. But this is not the case. Take Mike Gallagher, a Marine veteran who just won his first election to serve as a Republican member of the House from Wisconsin. He told me, "I know of no better patriot, warrior or servant-leader than General Mattis."

Syndicated radio host and Trump backer Laura Ingraham agrees. She tweeted on Friday that "Mattis is the best candidate for SecDef."

This is understandable. When Mattis served in President Barack Obama's first term as the head of U.S. Central Command, he was frustrated the U.S. did not more robustly respond to an Iranian plot to murder the Saudi ambassador in Washington. This year, he said the Iran nuclear agreement was only a temporary delay to Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon, not the foundation for friendlier relations, as some of the deal's proponents argue. 

Then there is the persona Mattis has cultivated as the ultimate warrior-Marine.

Just look up "Mattis quotes" on Google. One of my favorites: "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."

At the same time, quotes like that don't capture another side of Mattis, who is also known as the "Warrior Monk," because he never married and is an avid reader. In his retirement, he works out of Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he edited a serious book about civil-military relations.

That book will be more pertinent than ever because Mattis, who retired in 2013, has not been out of the military long enough to serve as the Secretary of Defense. Republicans supporting his nomination have said they will have to get a Congressional waiver, but expect there won't be any problem with that.

Finally, Mattis himself has shown sound political judgment in a year when most of the professional political class failed to predict the election of Trump. When he was approached in the spring by a handful of NeverTrump Republicans to launch an independent run for president, the Mad Dog demurred and declined.

Needless to say, the NeverTrump crowd is delighted at the prospect of the Warrior Monk/Mad Dog running the Pentagon. It appears Trump is coming around to this, as well. The president-elect tweeted Sunday morning "General James 'Mad Dog' Mattis, who is being considered for Secretary of Defense, was very impressive yesterday. A true General's General!"

On this point, almost all of Washington agrees.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net