‘CHAOS’ coming to Department of Defense with Mattis selection

You have heard a lot of nicknames ascribed to General James Mattis by the media in the hours since he was named as President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Defense.

Mad Dog. The Warrior Monk. But the only nickname used by those who have served with him is CHAOS, and it doesn’t mean what one might think.

It’s an acronym arising from his tenure as the Commanding Officer of 7th Marine Regiment, standing for Colonel Has Another Outstanding Suggestion.  Setting aside his reputation as a no-nonsense, straight-talking leader of warriors, Mattis is obsessed with military history and is regarded among his peers as one of the finest military strategists of his generation.

General Mattis

President-elect Trump has selected his nominee for Secretary of Defense in tapping longtime frontrunner, retired General James Mattis, for the role.  Trump is expected to make a formal announcement on December 5.  Pending passage of a Congressional waiver and successful confirmation, Mattis would be one of the most important and influential cabinet members in the Trump Administration.  Further, he would be the second retired general in history to serve as Secretary of Defense.  Former Army Chief of Staff George Marshall served as President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, and then as his Secretary of Defense, the latter of which required an exception from Congress.  In the past several days, the President-elect has also added a key member to his national security team and increased the size of his Department of Defense landing and transition teams.

General Mattis served for over 40 years in the Marine Corps.   Before his retirement, Mattis led US Central Command.  In this role, he was the top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2010-2013.  More broadly, US Central Command has responsibility over the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, including Syria, Libya, and numerous other nations of significant geopolitical strategic importance to US national security interest beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.  Mattis is also the former Commander of US Joint Forces Command and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Transformation.  Reportedly, in one of his first meetings with President-elect Trump, citing his experience as a NATO leader, Mattis was able to temper Trump’s position on the value (or lack thereof) of the US’ NATO alliances.  He is also believed to have changed the President-elect’s position on the use of torture on enemy combatants to glean intelligence, reportedly telling Trump that: “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.”

Mattis’ early interactions with Trump demonstrate that he will be willing to challenge the President-elect on points of disagreement on key defense and national security matters.  Mattis, Trump, and incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn are in near lockstep with respect to their belief about the preeminent threat to US national security interests posed by Iran.  However, Mattis diverges with Trump and Flynn in viewing Russian influence and activities in the Middle East, Europe, and elsewhere as a leading threat to US national security interests as well.  The dynamic between Mattis, a retired four-star general, and Flynn, a retired three-star general, will be interesting to observe as the two men take on the two most vital and influential defense and national security roles in the Trump Administration.

Mattis is revered by those who served with him in both the enlisted and officer ranks.  He is also widely respected by key defense policymakers in both parties on Capitol Hill.  This latter point is key.  Mattis would require a waiver from Congress to serve as Secretary of Defense.  To uphold one of the cornerstone principles of the US democratic republic – civilian control of the military – by law, former military officers cannot serve as Secretary of Defense within seven years of retirement without a Congressional waiver.  Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), who would lead Mattis’ confirmation process, is so supportive of Mattis for Secretary of Defense that he stated on November 29 that he would personally draft the legislation granting Mattis the required waiver to serve in the role.  House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX 13th) has voiced unwavering support for Mattis as well.

However, support for Mattis as Secretary of Defense on Capitol Hill is not universal among defense policymakers.  Upon learning of Trump’s intention to tap Mattis for the role, Senate Armed Services Committee member Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) indicated that while she has tremendous respect for General Mattis’ service, she will not support the required Congressional waiver in keeping with the fundamental principle of civilian control of the military.  Additional Democratic opposition may emerge in alignment with Gillibrand’s, but mindful that Mattis has no shortage of Congressional champions in the Senate, he is expected to receive the required waiver and be confirmed.

Key Defense and National Security Positions Filled

On November 25, President-elect Trump tapped Kathleen Troia “KT” McFarland to serve as Deputy National Security Advisor under Flynn in the incoming Trump Administration.  Ms. McFarland served as a Pentagon spokesperson under President Reagan, and served in defense and national security roles in the Nixon and Ford Administrations as well.  On November 29, President-elect Trump’s transition team announced the addition of five new members to the Pentagon landing team:

  • Dr. Mark Albrecht, Chairman of the Board at US Space LLC, a former Lockheed Martin and SAIC executive, and the former Principal Advisor on the US space program to President George H.W. Bush
  • Kenneth Braithwaite, Senior VP at Vizient, Inc. and a retired Navy Rear Admiral who last served as the Navy’s Vice Chief of Information
  • Craig Duehring, former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve Affairs
  • David Trachtenberg, CEO of Shortwaver Consulting LLC and the former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy under President George W. Bush
  • Dakota Wood, a Senior Research Fellow for Defense Programs at The Heritage Foundation and retired Marine

On December 1, President-elect Trump announced the addition of three new members to the DOD transition team:

  • Retired Rear Admiral Kendell Pease, former chief spokesman for the Navy and former VP of Government Relations at General Dynamics.  (Tim and I used to work with him and his team).  Pease will focus on Navy and Marine Corps issues.
  • Retired Captain Michael Egan, a former Army Special Forces officer and current consultant for Boston Consulting Group
  • Chris Hassler, a Naval Academy grad and current President and CEO of Syndetics, Inc.

These additions to the DOD landing and transition teams, as well as previously announced transition and landing team members, have been applauded by many within the GOP defense and national security “establishment” who were reluctant to align with President-elect Trump during his campaign.  While support for some of the President-elect’s selections is not universal within the greater community of Republican defense and national security professionals, there’s a growing consensus that Trump is forming a capable and experienced defense and national security team.  This sentiment has become even more pervasive in the wake of the news that Trump has selected General Mattis to serve as his Secretary of Defense.

In the coming weeks, we anticipate more breaking news from the Trump transition effort on the defense, intelligence, and national security front, so stay tuned.

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Chris Fetzer

About Chris Fetzer

Chris Fetzer is a partner in Dentons' Public Policy and Regulation practice and leads the Defense and Security Policy team. A native Washingtonian with an established track record of securing favorable outcomes to complex, high-stakes problems at the intersection of business, law, policy, and politics, he focuses on advocacy and strategy in the defense, trade, security, energy (including oil and gas), agriculture, technology, and foreign affairs arenas.

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