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James Mattis on why he left the Trump administration but won’t criticize it

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis served as President Trump’s first defense secretary, resigning his post in protest after Trump announced he would pull U.S. forces out of Syria. Now, Mattis has written a book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead.” He talks to Judy Woodruff about his philosophy of leadership and why he’s reluctant to weigh in on current policy from outside the administration.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to my interview with former Secretary of Defense retired Marine Corps General James Mattis. He resigned in protest just before Christmas last year after President Trump announced that he would pull American forces out of Syria.

    The U.S. and its allies were trying to finish off the remnants of the ISIS caliphate, and Mattis wrote in his resignation letter that he believed Mr. Trump deserved a secretary of defense whose — quote — "views are better aligned with yours."

    The decorated Marine served more than four decades in uniform, including commands in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He left the Corps in 2013 after a tumultuous turn running U.S. Central Command under President Obama.

    Secretary Mattis has written a new book, "Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead."

    And I sat down with him this morning in New York City.

    Former Secretary James Mattis, thank you very much for talking with us.

  • James Mattis:

    Yes, it's a pleasure to be here this morning.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the book is "Call Sign Chaos."

    It's about your 40 years in the Marines. It's also about your philosophy of leadership. And there's a lot of advice in here with regard to leadership.

    What does it boil down to?

  • James Mattis:

    Well, I think leadership has some enduring qualities, whether you're leading a parish, or you're leading a school district, you're leading a business, or you're in the military or politics.

    George Washington, the father of our country, I think, put it very well, how you have to listen, learn, help, and then lead. That was his approach. And it's one that served me well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The book is full of so many stories of your life, among other things, how you thought the troops and the people out on the front lines were not being listened to by people in Washington.

    And one of those examples was in 2001, when you thought Osama bin Laden, you had him cornered, in essence, in Afghanistan, but then the Bush administration, in effect, pulled the rug out from under you.

  • James Mattis:

    The Marine Corps required you to read a lot of history.

    And when our intelligence services said that they believed Osama bin Laden was in one of two valleys in an area up near Tora Bora, having studied the Geronimo Campaign, and how you could put in outposts that would cut him off, I pressed very hard to move against him.

    The challenge we face — and you're right to bring it up the way you did, Judy — is, oftentimes, we have 19- and 25-year-olds out there giving 100 percent, rigorously learning their jobs and carrying them out, but I'm not sure we have been as rigorous in setting policy.

    And this isn't about Republicans or Democrats or partisan. This goes across party lines. It even goes throughout the Western democracies right now that seem to be stumbling in protection of democratic values and what we all stand for.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you about a few issues touching on American leadership today, and start with Russia.

    You write at the end of the book especially about the critical importance of alliances, of America's allies. Is it a good or a bad idea to let Russia back into the G7, which is what the president has suggested?

  • James Mattis:

    Let me answer that in two ways, Judy.

    First, I believe that, when someone departs an administration over policy differences, you have what the French call a duty of reserve, a devoir de reserve.

    I don't want to, on the outside, be making it more difficult for our secretary of defense, secretary of state and president who have to deal with this very complex world. There will be a time when it's right for me to come out on strategy and policy disagreements.

    But I was clear in my letter of resignation that I believed in having alliances and staying true to alliances. And I think that, as we look at the importance of alliances, this is critical that we work with our allies.

    For example, when this town was attacked on 9/11, I was joined on the battlefield very quickly by troops from Canada and the United Kingdom, Norway and Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Jordan, and Turkey, not because their city had been attacked, because we had been attacked.

    So we need to hold our allies close. In this world, if you study history, nations with allies thrive, and nations without allies wither. And that's a reality.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about Russia joining — joining the G7?

  • James Mattis:

    Yes, I think I maintain my quiet right now. I don't want to speak to things that I'm no longer responsible for.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Saudi Arabia.

    Given what we know about the murder of journalists Jamal Khashoggi, is it in the long-term interests of the U.S. to be working with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman?

  • James Mattis:

    I think what we have to look, and what my book is written about is the lessons I learned about, how do you lead?

    And part of this is, at times, you have to work with countries that you don't share everything in common with. No doubt about that. But when you get into current policies and that sort of — that sort of subject, the reason I want to keep quiet right now is, we have troops all around the world engaged in operations.

    We have diplomats all around the world engaged in very sensitive negotiations. And for a former sitting secretary of defense to come out with criticism, especially when I'm not completely current — I don't know all the back-channel things that are going on — I think it's unhelpful, especially when I'm contributing to political assessments at a time when it's — the political discussions in this country are so corrosive.

    I think it is better that we all — at least the majority of us learn how to roll up our sleeves and listen to each other, work together, and try to support sound policies that answer the question you just asked.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I hear what you're saying, Secretary Mattis, but your book is full of references to decisions made for ethical reasons.

    This is an ethical decision, is it not, given what Mohammed bin Salman is accused of?

  • James Mattis:

    I believe it would be an ethical decision about working with him. I think you can separate that decision from working with Saudi Arabia.

    And that's difficult to do. But this is sometimes the case that those in positions of authority, they have to make accommodations to things, where you take the least of two bad options.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    North Korea. President Trump has praised Kim Jong-un as a great leader with — quote — "a beautiful vision" and that, due to the president's personal diplomacy, he says he's changed his behavior.

    How do you assess Kim Jong-un and the success at this point of U.S. policy with North Korea?

  • James Mattis:

    I'm going to frustrate you here, Judy, because I don't believe that, now in the cheap seats, is what I would call myself, that I'm going to engage in political assessments of something like that.

    There will come a point where I want to talk about strategy and policy. It's not yet. But there will come a time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, as you know, the election coming up in November of next year, Americans are going to be making a very important decision about in whom to place enormous decision-making power over the future of this country and the world.

    Are you saying you don't think it's your responsibility to speak up before the election?

  • James Mattis:

    That's exactly what I'm saying.

    I come from the Department of Defense. And this isn't just about me. Secretary Ash Carter, the secretary of defense under President Obama, made very clear that the defense of this country is a nonpartisan issue. And that was our area of expertise.

    He studiously avoided political statements. And that — so, this is not just me trying to be protective of the administration that I just left over policy differences, I might add. This is a standing tradition of the American military and the American defense establishment that goes back to century now.

    And in the current corrosive political debates, it can get submerged, where everybody thinks it's all about political assessments all the time. That doesn't have to be the case when it comes to the U.S. military. They protect the experiment. And it's pretty a raucous experiment right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But you also served as the secretary of defense, a Cabinet position…

  • James Mattis:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … in the government with immense responsibility.

    And I just want to ask you some more about that, because you spent a lot of time with the editor of "The Atlantic," Jeffrey Goldberg. He did — wrote a very thoughtful piece for them.

    He talked to a number of your associates. They have talked to you about President Trump, that they believe what you believe about him is that he is a man of limited cognitive ability and of generally dubious character.

  • James Mattis:

    Number one, I never said that. And I'm not going to comment on who might have said it.

    But I wouldn't tolerate, when I was on active duty or as secretary defense, any condemnation or characterization like that of any elected commander in chief.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, to those who would — and some are writing this right now — who say that you have a responsibility, because you have worked so closely with this president, to speak candidly about what you have seen?

    And some of them are saying, you're trying to have it both ways, that you both enjoyed this position of enormous influence inside the administration, but now you're out, you don't have that responsibility anymore, and you're not speaking to the American people about what you know.

    And allies of this country could be asking the same question.

  • James Mattis:

    Well, I — frankly, I determine my own responsibilities. And I have lived what I believed is a responsible life.

    The area of expertise that I had had to do with the protection of this experiment that you and I call America. It's the protection of it. And, at times, it's very raucous. But I also have a lot of confidence in the American people that they can select who they think is the best president, without me coming in from the outside on a — as a defense official, whether active or former or whatever, and start sounding like I'm the one who is able to evaluate those who have the toughest job in the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are you confident this is a president who can be trusted with the nuclear codes, a fateful responsibility?

  • James Mattis:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You want to expand on that, why you believe that?

  • James Mattis:

    You know, the responsibility that lies — and that's a very grave one. I have not heard anything that would indicate there was some irresponsibility there.

    The thing is, Judy, that we live in a time where every word is taken apart. And I realize we have an unusual president, and he talks openly about many things.

    But, at the same time, in the privacy of the office, he has to deal with the reality of competing factors. And I would bring the grim realities of war into that office. At the same time, political leaders are elected to try to bring human aspirations to bear, of a better economy, of pulling troops out of wars.

    This is the normal — to me, this is the normal tension between human aspirations and war's realities, those grim realities. And it's something that, I like being hard on the issues. I don't believe in being hard on the people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If you believed that this president or any president wasn't a fit commander in chief, would you say so?

  • James Mattis:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In other words, you think he's fit?

  • James Mattis:

    No, I'm not saying that. I don't make political assessments one way or the other.

    I come from the Defense Department. We protect this experiment in democracy. We don't make assessments of the people's choice to serve as the elected commander in chief.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, thank you very much for talking with us.

  • James Mattis:

    You're welcome, Judy. Thank you.

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