Trump’s Picks for Defense: What We Know About Mattis and Flynn

December 14, 2016 | 10:19 am
Photo: Wikimedia
David Wright
Former Contributor

Donald Trump has picked James Mattis as his secretary of defense and Michael Flynn as his national security advisor. What do we know about these two men?

While they are both retired generals (Marine Corps and Army, respectively) with experience in the Middle East and Afghanistan, they are otherwise very different. The bottom line: Mattis appears qualified for the job; Flynn does not.

James Mattis

Based on his public statements, Mattis has strongly held opinions but recognizes the value of listening to contrary views and rethinking those opinions. In a speech last year he talked about the importance of “mavericks” who are willing to ask questions that “make you uncomfortable,” and of “red teams” that are set up specifically to find the holes in your arguments.

James Mattis (Source: DOD)

James Mattis (Photo: DOD)

He also appreciates the value of reading. He reportedly sent a reading list to officers in his command before they deployed to Iraq in 2004 and required them to study it. In late 2003, he wrote:

“The problem with being too busy to read is that you learn by experience (or by your men’s experience), i.e. the hard way. By reading, you learn through others’ experiences, generally a better way to do business, especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men.”

Nuclear weapons

Mattis has questioned the status quo on US nuclear weapons policy. In Senate testimony last year he said:

“The nuclear stockpile must be tended to and fundamental questions must be asked and answered:

We must clearly establish the role of our nuclear weapons: do they serve solely to deter nuclear war?  If so we should say so, and the resulting clarity will help to determine the number we need.

Is it time to reduce the Triad to a Diad, removing the land‐based missiles?  This would reduce the false alarm danger.”

So he appears willing to consider declaring a no-first-use policy, eliminating tactical weapons that would be used for nuclear “warfighting,” eliminating the land-based missile force, and reducing the risks of mistaken launch. Since these steps would reduce the risk that nuclear weapons would be used, he’s definitely asking the right questions.

Given his testimony and his concerns about wasteful spending, we can also expect him to ask hard questions about the current $1 trillion plan to rebuild the whole US nuclear arsenal.

Missile defense

Mattis would hopefully cast a similarly critical eye on the US missile defense program.

Congress recently voted to expand the scope of missile defense from defending against potential “limited” threats such as North Korean missiles to defending against bigger and more sophisticated arsenals, and Congress will likely add funding for an additional site for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system.

Mattis’ interest in dissenting points of view will hopefully lead him to read our recent analysis of the GMD  system, which details the widely recognized problems that have resulted from insufficient accountability and oversight of the system’s development. More than a decade after it was initially declared operational, and with a price tag of $40 billion, the GMD system has still not demonstrated it could defend against a real-world attack.

Mattis talks about the importance of commanders studying “after-action reports” to learn lessons from their military campaigns; our report is essentially an “after-action report” that lays out the lessons learned from more than a decade of deployment. Hopefully he will similarly see this as required reading.


Mattis is no doubt aware that his world view and expertise are dominated by the Middle East, which has been his focus for more than 30 years. Given his interest in learning, he will hopefully commit to learning all he can, from a range of sources, about China and other key issues, so that he can avoid surprises when he has to deal with them.

Issues for Congress to consider

Given all this, Mattis may make a thoughtful defense secretary who is willing to listen to a range of views. There are at least three issues, however, that the Senate will have to think very hard about as it considers whether to confirm him.

First, as has been widely discussed, he will need a congressional waiver since he has been out of the military for only three years rather than the seven years required by law.

This is not an academic issue. Ensuring civilian control of the US military has long been a fundamental principle in the United States. This is even more of an issue than it might otherwise be since Trump is considering several ex-generals for high-level posts.

There may be a good case for granting an exception for Mattis—but the Trump administration needs to make that case. Moreover, debate on this issue should not be rushed and perfunctory.  And if Congress does grant the waiver, it must make very clear that this case is exceptional, and that the seven year rule remains the law and the expectation in the future.

Second, it is not clear that Mattis, who gets rave reviews for his work on the battlefield, is a good match for this job. People who know him say he hates bureaucracy, of which there are none bigger than the Pentagon. In fact, his skills may make him a better fit for national security advisor. Lawrence Korb makes a compelling argument that Trump should instead appoint him to head the Joint Chiefs.

Third, the Senate must consider Mattis’ potential conflicts of interests. For example, he serves on the board of General Dynamics, for which he has reportedly received over a million dollars in compensation including stock options. General Dynamics currently gets military contracts worth some $10 billion a year and will be lobbying for an expansive effort to rebuild the nuclear arsenal. The Senate must be convinced that he can avoid both real and perceived conflicts of interest.

Michael Flynn

Which brings us to Michael Flynn—Mr. Trump’s choice for national security advisor. This position does not require Senate confirmation, so he will not undergo the same sort of public vetting that Mattis and others will. That is unfortunate.

Michael Flynn (Source: DIA)

Michael Flynn (Photo: DIA)

The evidence so far suggests that Flynn is exactly the kind of person you don’t want in that position. Less than a week before the election he was tweeting fake news stories about Hillary Clinton and sex crimes with children, and about Obama laundering money for terrorists.

He appears to have an unhealthy faith in his own opinions and an unwillingness to change them despite strong evidence that he is wrong. This character flaw led his staff at the Defense Intelligence Agency to coin the phrase “Flynn Facts” to describe his tendency to assert things with little or no basis in fact. As David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy magazine and an expert on the National Security Council, wrote:

“This is a man who has now demonstrated repeatedly that he has either bad judgment or dubious motives when it comes to the selection, interpretation and dissemination of information.”

As security advisor, Flynn’s job will be to pull together and provide the president with assessments and options from a wide range of administration sources, and not simply to provide Trump with his personal opinions.

His record and recent actions raise serious doubts about whether he can do that.

With Trump now saying he will not take part in daily intelligence briefings, having him rely on “Flynn Facts” is the last thing the country needs.