For the first time since he was appointed by President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was asked by reporters directly: “Are you a Democrat?"

It’s not a question that crossed the minds of most reporters during Mattis’ early tenure. The former top Middle East general could be bellicose in the field; Trump had clear affection for that “Mad Dog” image in his rallies. Trump said Mattis was “a true generals’ general.” However, Mattis had never identified himself as a Republican, nor as a Democrat.

But in the past few weeks, the former four-star commander who saw his tenure as the head of U.S. Central Command cut short during Democrat President Barack Obama’s presidency over disagreements on his Iran policy was now facing regular questions over whether his time in Trump’s Republican cabinet would be similarly short-lived, particularly after Trump told “60 Minutes” on Sunday he thought his defense secretary may be “sort of a Democrat.”

Mattis is traveling at present to Vietnam and Singapore. It is common for him to talk to reporters on the long flights overseas. The questions are almost always about foreign policy or national security; today, they were also about politics.

Q: Mr. Secretary, are you a Democrat? Mattis: Pardon?

Q: Are you a Democrat? Mattis: “You know, we’re all built on our formative experiences. When I was 18, I joined the Marine Corps, and in the U.S. military we are proudly apolitical. By that, I mean that in our duties, we were brought up to obey the elected commander in chief, whoever that is. And we’ve seen, over those — since I was in the military longer than some of you have been alive, I have seen Republicans and Democrats come and go. Where am I today? I’m a member of the president’s administration. And you have seen that President Trump’s military policies, security policies, reaping significant bipartisan support. So my role, when you see 83 percent — think about this — for ― and I realize you all write about tension between this person and that, this administration and that party, and this sort of thing.”

Mattis continued: “But when you think 83 percent of the U.S. Congress voting the same way on an issue put forward by the Republican president, you can see that my portfolio is bipartisan by its very basis, and that is the protection of the United States. That’s what President Trump has told me to do, and I eagerly carry that out, alongside probably the most selfless young men and women — not all young; some old men and women, too — civilian and military, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines working together. So that’s where I stand. That defines me."

Q: I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but you haven’t registered Republican or Democrat. Is that what I’m hearing you say?

Mattis: I’ve never registered for any political party.

Mattis went on to say that he does not have any indications that his job is in jeopardy.

“We [President Trump and Mattis] have never talked about me leaving. And as you can see right here, we’re on our way. We just continue doing our job.”

Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.

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