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How Gen. James Mattis could become the unlikeliest U.S. president in history

April 10, 2016 (Photo Credit: Matt Dunham/AP)

 

The path for former Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis to become president is simple:

1. Declare himself a candidate.

2. Ensure no other candidate gets 270 electoral college votes in November.

3. Have Congress install him as commander-in-chief.

Technically, supporters of the idea are labeling it "quite simple, but it's difficult."

 

Even in a presidential campaign where implausible twists have become regular occurrences, a brewing long-shot bid to draft the former Central Command leader would be among the biggest political surprises in American history.

But a group of political operatives is working to make it a reality.

As first reported by The Daily Beast on Friday, they say the effort has both staff and strategy in place to push Mattis’ name into the middle of the 2016 contest, and deep-pocketed donors waiting in the wings should the movement take hold. They’ve already floated the idea in a series of stories and opinion pieces.

All without any signal from Mattis that he’s even remotely interested in the job.

“I think if he is asked, his initial response will be somewhere between ‘no’ and 'hell no,'” said John Noonan, a former adviser to former Florida Gov. failed presidential candidate Jeb Bush's failed presidential campaign. Noonan is among the Mattis' movement's leaders.

“But I do think this race is serious enough, and Donald Trump’s foreign policy is worrisome enough, to make him consider it.”

 

Trump is the impetus for the push. Noonan said most of the individuals exploring a Mattis run are waiting for the next few weeks to see if the Republican frontrunner can be overtaken by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who convincingly won the Wisconsin primary earlier this month.

If not, the choices left for president in November will be “one candidate who is a hair away from federal indictment (Hillary Clinton) and a reality TV show lunatic,” Noonan said.

“Mattis is almost so good that this election might not deserve him.”

Getting Mattis on ballots would be a logistical nightmare, although a planning memo circulated among movement members outlines how it could be done. Texas is the biggest obstacle, with filing deadlines in less than a month.

But the victory plan for Mattis doesn’t rely on him winning the most states in November, just ensuring that no other candidate gets to the 270 electoral votes needed to assume the White House.

According to the memo, one possible scenario is all of the states breaking for the same party as in 2012, but with Mattis capturing Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania (forget for a moment that Mattis has never won a single vote in those states or even appeared on a local ballot).

That result would leave Clinton with 267 votes, Trump with 206, Mattis with 67 and no one with enough to claim victory. The 12th Amendment dictates that Congress would then decide the winner, a process that hasn’t actually been tested in the last 190 years.

Noonan said he’s confident that given the choices available at that point, a Republican controlled Congress would back Mattis.

“All bets are off this election cycle,” he said. “We shouldn’t be embarrassed to allow the American people a good choice for president.”

But that unlikely scenario will require a national election campaign for Mattis, including a larger-than-standard team to fend off legal challenges, a bolder-than-standard team to lead a national publicity tour, and a “all-star finance team to coalesce almost immediately.”

And it also hinges on a willing candidate, something the Mattis movement does not yet have.

 

Mattis declined to comment on news reports about drafting him into the election. In July, he rejected the idea when asked about it during a speech at Columbia Basin College in Washington state, saying he’d leave politics to “younger people.” Earlier this year, when pressed on the issue by the Daily Caller, he dismissed the idea as “idle talk.”

The former four-star currently works as a national security fellow at the Hoover Institution, a California-based think tank connected to Stanford University.

He developed a cult-like following among service members during his 34-year military career, in large part due to his blunt talk about the nature of combat. He once advised Marines serving under him to “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

Noonan said he is confident the American public will also embrace the 65-year-old veteran as a modern-day Dwight Eisenhower.

“He has already proven to be a gifted leader,” he said. “I think the judgement and experience he has shown is particularly suited to the problems we’re seeing overseas today. [Voters] would see his virtue and integrity.”

 

Mattis did get one write-in vote in the recent Military Times survey polling currently serving subscribers on their choice for president. That’s noteworthy mostly because write-in votes were not offered as an option in that poll.

Among the active-duty service members surveyed, most backed Trump for president. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was a close second, and stood out to Navy and Air Force personnel as the preferred candidate. 

Six Republican primaries are scheduled between now and the end of April, including big-ticket states like Pennsylvania and New York. Mattis backers should know by then whether Trump’s nomination is inevitable, and when they need to start their work.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

 

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