Trump picks legendary Marine Gen. Jim Mattis for defense secretary

REUTERS/Mike Segar

President-elect Donald Trump has tapped retired Marine Gen. James "Mad Dog" Mattis for the role of defense secretary.

Trump announced the pick during his victory rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Thursday night, adding "we’re not announcing it until Monday, so don’t tell anybody."

Mattis is "an excellent pick that offers an opportunity to restore the warrior culture in DOD that's been undermined by this administration," Joe Kasper, chief of staff to Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, told Business Insider. "Mattis is no-nonsense, and he's a sure bet to turn the Pentagon upside down and get things done."

After Trump met with Mattis more than a week ago, most defense watchers believed the retired Marine general was the top pick to lead the Pentagon. The president-elect has described Mattis as "very impressive" and said he was "seriously considering" him for the position.

In an off-the-record meeting with media executives and on-air personalities in November, Trump "said he believes it is time to have someone from the military as secretary of defense," according to Politico. Other Republicans and DC insiders also offered praise for Mattis — though he would require a congressional waiver to serve as defense secretary since he has not been out of uniform for the statutorily required seven years.

Mattis faced plenty of competition along the way, including retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, former Republican Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, and others. Keane reportedly declined Trump's offer to serve at the Pentagon but recommended Mattis for the position.

A number of defense secretaries who served under President Barack Obama have criticized Obama for "micromanaging" the Pentagon. Even Mattis himself was forced into early retirement by the White House because of his hawkish views on Iran, according to Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy.

If confirmed, Mattis would oversee roughly 3 million military and civilian personnel and face myriad challenges, from the ongoing fights against ISIS and China's moves in the South China Sea to the stress on the military imposed by sequestration.

He may also end up dealing with a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, and Russia is likely to test limits in Eastern Europe. The secretary will also need to reinvigorate a military plagued by low morale.

The four-star general retired in 2013 after leading Marines for 44 years. His last post was with US Central Command, the unified command based in Tampa, Florida, tasked with operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and more than two dozen other countries.

Gen. James MattisREUTERS/Mike Segar

Mattis is something of a legendary figure in the US military. Looked at as a warrior among Marines and well respected by other service members, he has been at the forefront of a number of engagements.

He led his battalion of Marines in the assault during the first Gulf War in 1991 and commanded the task force charging into Afghanistan in 2001. In 2003, as a major general, he once again took up the task of motivating his young Marines to go into battle, penning a letter to his troops before they crossed the border into Iraq.

Though he's beloved by troops for his straight talk and strategic genius, he's dealt with some controversy outside of the military for some of his more colorful quotes. He asserted in 2005 that it was "fun to shoot some people" — he said he was talking about fundamentalists who "slap women around" in Afghanistan for not wearing veils. Still, the Marine commandant at the time said Mattis was counseled and that "he should have chosen his words more carefully," according to Fox News.

Mattis is currently a distinguished fellow at Stanford, conducting research and giving lectures on leadership and strategy. He was a distinguished fellow at Dartmouth in 2013.

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