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Trump's Cabinet Of Ex-Generals Indicates Focus On National Security


Now, if it feels like you've been hearing a lot lately about generals being tapped to join the incoming Trump administration, you are correct. John Kelly is the third in a list that may keep growing, and that's raising questions about the wisdom of packing the highest ranks of government with so much military brass. NPR's national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly is here in the studio. Welcome.


CORNISH: So remind us of this lineup. So far we've mentioned John Kelly of course. There's also General James Mattis, the pick for defense security.

KELLY: Both of them retired Marine Corps generals. There's also retired Army Lieutenant General Mike Flynn who's been tapped as the national security adviser. All of these jobs, we should point out, are currently held by civilians. And there are some still very big posts to fill - secretary of state, director of national intelligence.

CORNISH: Now, is this actually that unusual? I mean didn't President Obama look to military leaders when he first took office?

KELLY: He did and for the obvious reasons that presidents have always and presumably will always turn to military commanders. They are proven to be disciplined. They know how to command. They've proven their mettle.

Two things about the current situation I think - one is that President-elect Trump campaigned saying he knew better than the generals. So I think there's some surprise now that he is turning to so many of them.

The other thing is this specific challenge this time with General Mattis up for defense secretary as we mentioned. If you have been in the military, you're supposed to have been retired for seven years before assuming the position of defense secretary. Mattis has not.

CORNISH: Right. We're already hearing about this on Capitol Hill - a fight unfolding there about this issue.

KELLY: Absolutely. I mean Congress could grant a waiver to allow him to serve. It has been done before. The thinking is that that is likely what will happen again. Mattis enjoys support from Democrats and Republicans. But I reached out to lawmakers today, caught Adam Schiff at the Capitol. He's the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and here's what he said.

ADAM SCHIFF: The addition of General Kelly or others to the Cabinet will only heighten people's concerns with granting a waiver to General Mattis.

KELLY: I asked Adam Schiff why, Audie, and he said his concern is that a military officer is going to reach for a military solution instead of maybe considering the whole range of diplomatic or other tools that may be available to solve a problem.

CORNISH: So the possibility being raised by Schiff is that tapping General Kelly today could complicate things for General Mattis.

KELLY: Right.

CORNISH: And then there's that other big opening we mentioned at the State Department. Is there a chance we'd see a general for that post, too?

KELLY: Well, one of the names that we keep hearing floated is of course General David Petraeus, the former Army general. I called a man named Richard Kohn today to ask about this. Kohn is an expert on civilian-military relations. He's professor emeritus down at UNC Chapel Hill.

He said, let me paint you a picture. Picture President Trump's Situation Room in which, bear in mind, you already have one very senior officer at the table in the person of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then Trump has now tapped three other generals. Here's Kohn.

RICHARD KOHN: If he's going to have two Marines in the room as the head of Cabinet departments and a national security adviser who's a three-star retired Army general, that's enough. It just cannot be and should not be the reign of the generals.

KELLY: So one footnote to that - he did not mention admirals, so I will. Admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO - he's meeting Trump tomorrow in New York - thought also to be in the running for secretary of state.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Thank you.

KELLY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.