No general gets four stars without at least a few of them
by KEVIN KNODELL
James “Chaos” Mattis is on his way to becoming the Trump Administration’s new Secretary of Defense. He’s widely celebrated as a man of humble roots with a reputation as a Marine’s Marine who puts troops over politics.
However, he is a retired four star general. Being a general is an inherently political job that requires regular interaction with people with political and business interests.
These connections sometimes follow people.
Mattis was a larger than life figure during his military service. He’s widely celebrated for his sometimes blunt manner of speaking about combat and war.
“Be polite, be professional and have a plan to kill everyone you meet,” is perhaps one of his best known “Mattisisms.”
He comes from the small town of Richland in eastern Washington state, which he officially lists as his residence since retiring from the Marine Corps. Though he’s lately spent much of his time at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, he still makes his rounds at Richland’s local VFW when he visits and sits on the board of the local food bank.
He even flew out for jury duty in November 2016. He’s said that if not called to government service, he’d rather be fishing in the Columbia River.
But Mattis is in many ways an odd fit for the Trump administration. During the election, he criticized the president-elect’s campaign promise to ban Muslims from entering the county, arguing it made it appear as though America had “lost faith in reason.”
He is celebrated for his independence. But Mattis spent a long time working with and around politically connected people. It’s nearly impossible to come out of that without a potential conflict of interest or two. For instance, Mattis technically hasn’t been out of uniform long enough to take the secretary of defense job.
For Congress to even officially consider him, Mattis needs to get around post-World War II laws aimed at ensuring civilian control of the military. On Jan. 11, 2017, the Trump transition team apparently made the sudden decision not to let Mattis take part in one of two Congressional hearings to discuss this waiver and his nomination — which lawmakers had scheduled for Jan. 12, 2017.
On top of that, it’s not uncommon for retiring military brass to use the so called “revolving door” when exiting the service to gain lucrative positions in the private sector. These job offers often come from companies the officers were once supposed to scrutinize and oversee while in uniform.
For instance, former Marine Corps Commandant James Amos joined the board of the LORD Corporation shortly after retirement. This company makes parts for the controversial Osprey aicraft, which the retired general long championed while on active duty.
Mattis has a reputation for disdaining political hacks and lobbyists. Nevertheless, he’s well connected — and that benefited him well in his post-military career.
Just five months after retiring from the Marine Corps, Mattis joined the board of General Dynamics and received about $1 million in compensation by 2017. Under ethics laws, the retired officer would not only have to personally divest from General Dynamics, he could have to recuse himself from all deals involving the company for a year or more.
That could pose a challenge. General Dynamics is the fifth largest defense supplier. In 2015 alone, the Pentagon gave the firm roughly $10 billion in contracts.
The Virginia-headquartered company brought us the M-1 Abrams tank, Stryker fighting vehicle and countless other major weapons. Its dealings with the Pentagon are frequent and significant.
And after Trump’s election victory, the contractor seemed poised to try to capitalize on the president-elect’s pledge to expand the U.S. Navy. The conglomerate’s shipbuilding arm builds Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Virginia-class nuclear submarines.
However, even if Mattis divests his holdings and agrees to recuse himself from dealings for a time, there might still be ethics problems. According to General Dynamics’ most recent proxy statement, Mattis’ brother is an employee of one of the company’s subsidiaries, a potentially persistent conflict of interest throughout his prospective tenure at the Pentagon.
In addition, there is Mattis’ decision to join the board of the controversial blood-testing company Theranos. While on active duty, Mattis worked closely with the company.
At the time, Theranos was a Silicon Valley phenomenon that promised to revolutionize blood-testing, making it faster and more reliable. The company’s quick rise — aided by its politically connected executives — has since been the subject of scandal for a series of botched test results and a litany of concerns about poor standards and non-compliance with regulations.
Mattis first met Theranos head Elizabeth Holmes in 2011 at a Marine Memorial. While chief of U.S. Central Command, he made a personal point of pressing the U.S. Army to procure the company’s equipment for use in Afghanistan.
An Army health unit eventually halted the deal when Theranos did not meet the service’s specifications. Due to Mattis’ involvement, medical staff felt “caught in the middle of something that feels quite political” and there seemed to be “an intentional effort to short-cut a variety of processes necessary prior to fielding,” U.S. Army Col. Kent Kester wrote in an e-mail at the time.
As Mattis prepared to leave the Marine Corps, he sought an ethics opinion concerning potential future employment with Theranos. His counsel cautioned him against it.
“We are concerned that Mattis chose to join the company’s board anyway,” the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C. non-profit that monitors defense spending, noted in a letter to Sens. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and Jack Reed, a Democrat representing Rhode Island.
“While not an explicit violation of the legal opinion, it certainly appears to violate the spirit of the ethical advice he received,” the note continued. “Although Mattis has already stepped down from Theranos’s board, we hope the [Senate Armed Services] Committee’s confirmation hearing will evaluate his thinking on his involvement in this matter.”
Beyond potential conflicts of interest and business deals, Mattis could also face questions during any confirmation process about his role in an incident that involved the death of an American soldier and Afghan allies during the early days of the war in Afghanistan.
Shortly after the Trump transition team announced Mattis as their pick for the top defense job, retired Army Green Beret Jason Amerine wrote a visceral Facebook post. Amerine — a widely respected special ops veteran — asserted that the general’s decision to delay rescue aircraft might have led to the deaths of Army Staff Sgt. Brian Cody Prosser and at least two Afghans after they were wounded in an explosion outside of Kandahar.
“He was indecisive and betrayed his duty to us, leaving my men to die during the golden hour when he could have reached us,” Amerine alleged.
Mattis may be a celebrated warrior scholar, but as he moves toward taking his new civilian job, there’s bound to be more scrutiny and questions. Only time will tell whether the retired officer’s responses are as blunt, yet eloquent as his famous maxims.