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

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, Former U.S. Secretary of Defense:
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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