Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

Marines Say 'Mad Dog' Mattis May Temper Trump

Clarke Lethin, former chief of staff at Camp Pendleton, now retired. He served with Mattis in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Matthew Bowler
Clarke Lethin, former chief of staff at Camp Pendleton, now retired. He served with Mattis in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Marines Say 'Mad Dog' Mattis May Temper Trump
Marines Say 'Mad Dog' Mattis May Temper Trump
Marines Say 'Mad Dog' Mattis May Temper Trump GUEST:Steve Walsh, reporter, KPBS News

Retired Marine General James Mattis is on Capitol Hill today for his confirmation hearing as Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of defense. Mattis it is seen as a legend among the Marines especially those he commanded from camp Pendleton. They say to expect the man called mad dog to help ground the incoming administration. He has never been married or have children so perhaps the people who knew him best are the Marines who served with him over a 44 year military career. To them Mattis is a legend. He has a unique ability to not only empathize but connect with all the Marines and of all ranks under all levels of his charge. He was a young Lance Corporal in 2004 when Mattis led the first Marine division and pollution. It was one of the deadliest battles of the Iraq war. You literally felt like he was thanking you as an individual and as a Marine for what you have done. His troops in Iraq began calling him mad dog. They can't recall ever seeing Mattis lose control. Instead he saw a thoughtful and scholarly commander had a personal library of over 7000 volumes. He let listings young sons come over and borrow books. They would come in sometimes and that -- and say dad look at this. Therapy has notes on it. In a conference at 2005 third general. Got in trouble the Pentagon when he talked about shooting the Taliban. It's a lot of fun to fight them. It is fun to shoot some people. I like brawling. It's the kind of plainspoken language that he says Mattis would use to defend his young Marines. Sometimes they have to kill their asked to do that and if they have to do it then they should not feel guilty about having to do those things. This week the Senate armed services committee took Testament whether to waive or the requirement that he be out of the military at least seven years. Mattis retired in 2013. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York ask the committee whether there were already too many generals in the cabinet. Where are the blind spots that we will need to be aggressively providing oversight? Some of mad docs initial critics have softened. They now see Mattis as a counterweight to think they have -- Trump has said during the campaign for instance torture. I would bring back waterboarding and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding. Lethin says that is not Mattis's view of torture. I don't think he believes in torture. It does not seem to have benefited us that much. Lethin was with Mattis in Afghanistan in 2001 when they were tasked with setting up a camp for detainees. We set up a facility that was as good as we could set up for those detainees abiding by the rules for the Genito -- the Geneva Convention and some cases they were living better than the Marines on the front lines. There are some questions this disclosure to the office of government ethics says he has made 1 million -- made millions from his retirement mostly with paid speeches. He has had to resign his seat on the board of directors of General Dynamics. The Washington Post reports that Mattis has already clashed behind the scenes with members of the Trump team overstepping of the defense department. Lethin says he does not expect the former head of central command to shrink in the face of strong personalities. General Mattis is very transparent. If he doesn't like something he is going to make that known. Before the Senate can confirm the retired general both the Senate and the house will have to vote on the waiver that would allow him to serve. Steve Walsh KPBS news. Joining me is divorce. Welcome. During his confirmation several Senators including a -- Elizabeth Warren are -- made it quite clear that they were looking to Mattis to be a counter to an entrusted pleasant Trump. She said we were -- we are counting on you. What they expect them to do? That was the question any could tell that Elizabeth Warren was very friendly what you would not imagine for a Democratic Senator when you are coming to a Republican nominee especially in such a controversial administration. He has become something as a cause célèbre among them. There was a lot of hesitation early this is a guy called mad dog but they are hoping he's going to counter him on views of torture what she went through in the piece and also just working with allies and cooperating with allies and Trump has talked to them about paying their fair share and tile -- called them freeloaders and hearing this morning before the Senate armed services committee that he has never going into a fight and he's always looking to make more allies. This goes all the way down -- mainly because his time in Iraq he saw his fuel lines dwindling and the Defense Department has since become a leader in green energy and Donald Trump has said -- had a lot of negative things to say about climate change and then of course support for the intelligence community. General Mattis today in the hearing put some distance between himself and President Trump once again in his comments about Russia and Vladimir Putin. What did he say? He showed that he is incredibly skeptical of Vladimir Putin and his motives. He sees Russia as a global competitor to the United States. He said he has a very modest expectations about areas where we may be able to cooperate with Mr. Putin. He sees Putin as somebody who is trying to drive a wedge between the US and his allies. On a -- obviously that is in contrast to Donald Trump is that he hopes to do another reset with Vladimir Putin. He was asked specifically if he would roll back advances made by women and gays in the military. He did not directly answer those questions when asked. What has his stance been? This is something that Kristin Gillibrand brought up. She was only one that said she would not support the waiver. She pressed him on that issue she got a couple speeches from 2013 after he retired where he was critical of women serving in combat. He talked about the pull of areas. But he took the position that this is settled and he's not looking to come in or have a fight. This is established policies and that he plans to see if orbit. He set of summary bring some a problem he will look at it but he's not looking for a fight. Is is not necessarily the most full endorsement of him. Of course the Marines are open of opening all positions of combat roles to women so medicine is not alone among Marines for the skepticism. Tell us more about this waiver. Mattis canceled his meeting with the house armed services committee. A lot of Democrats are upset about that. He needs a waiver from both the House and the Senate in order to overcome this prohibition of being in the military and then being in a fence -- civilian position in the United States government? This is where it gets a little bit complicated. When it comes to this cabinet pick got this is the one cabinet pick were Democrats could have the most influence if they want to. They need 60 votes to pass this waiver or this law that says you have to be out of the Defense Department for at least seven years. He retired in at least 2013. They have to pass a law about the House and Senate. The cold hold it up because it is a law but again there has been a lot of reluctance. They did cancel the meeting today he was supposed to meet in the house and the Senate. There are a lot of Democrats in the house questioned the decision to withhold him and a lot of complaints. They want to see this guy. And most think he is a shoe in for confirmation. Is that right? The armed services committee did vote on that waiver at the end of the hearing that voted it out 24-3. Obviously had the support of Democrat so it makes it less likely that he will be able to not like get the 60 votes they need to pass that through the Senate. I have been speaking with Steve Walsh. Thank you so much. Thank you.

As Donald Trump's nominee for defense secretary James Mattis undergoes scrutiny on Capitol Hill this week, many of the Marines he commanded from Camp Pendleton are rooting for him. Some say the retired Marine general they nicknamed “Mad Dog” may actually help ground the incoming president.

Clarke Lethin was in the Marine Corps from 1980 to 2008, ending his career as chief of staff of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton. Lethin said that contrary to President-elect Trump, "I don't think (Mattis) believes in torture." Trump said at one primary debate, “I’d bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”

Lethin said Mattis would disagree, noting that torture "doesn’t seem to have benefitted us all that much.”


Lethin was with Mattis in Afghanistan in 2001, when the Marines were tasked with setting up a camp for detainees.

“He set up a facility that was as good as we could for those detainees,” Lethin said, “abiding by the rules of the Geneva Conventions. In some cases they were living better than our Marines on the front lines.”

Mattis never married and he doesn’t have children. Among the people closest to him are the Marines who Mattis served with at different times over a 44-year military career.

Chris Weimer from San Diego was a young lance corporal in 2004 when Mattis led the 1st Marine Division in Fallujah, the sight of some of the deadliest battles of the Iraq War. Mattis spoke to Weimer’s battalion as it was finally leaving Iraq.

“You literally felt like he was thanking you, as an individual and as a Marine, for what you had done,” he said.


Lethin concurred that Mattis has the common touch with personnel. Lethin was with Mattis in Iraq and Afghanistan, but has known the general since the two were at the same recruiting station in Oregon. The station was under-performing. Lethin said Mattis' first act was to get a map of the recruiters under his command.

“He left for five days. He went out and visited every Marine. He visited every recruiting station in Washington, Oregon and Idaho,” Lethin said.

Recruitment improved and that direct contact with those under his command became part of the way Mattis operated throughout his career, including in Afghanistan, Lethin said.

Lethin is now ‎managing director at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. He recalled how Mattis has let Lethin’s young sons borrow books from the thousands of volumes in his personal library.

“They’d come in sometimes and say, 'dad, look at this!' and there would be Jim’s notes along the side,” Lethin said.

But some oppose Mattis as the defense secretary nominee. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has said there are already "too many generals" in the Trump administration. Gillibrand serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering whether to waive the requirement that the secretary of defense must be out of the military for at least seven years. Mattis retired in 2013. So far, Gillibrand is the lone member of the committee who has said publicly that she opposes granting Mattis a waiver.

Mattis also faces questions over his disclosure to the Office of Government Ethics, which shows he has made millions since his retirement, mostly from paid speeches and consultant fees. Goldman Sachs and defense contractor Northup Grumman are on the list. He has resigned his seat on the board of directors of General Dynamics.

The Washington Post reports Mattis has already clashed behind the scenes with members of the Trump transition team after he wasn’t consulted about who would serve under him in the defense department. Lethin said he doesn’t expect the former head of Central Command to be a shrinking violet in the Trump administration.

“General Mattis is very transparent," Lethin said. "If he doesn’t like something, he’s going to make that known.”