On his first day on the job, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis spent four hours at the Pentagon. He had in-briefings, met with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford. He even had to take a urine test, like every other service member and civilian employee.

He also sent out a carefully thought-out message to every service member and defense civilian employee.

“We are the sentinels and guardians of our nation,” Mattis wrote. “We need only look to you, the uniformed and civilian members of the Department and your families, to see the fundamental unity of our country. You represent an America committed to the common good; an America that is never complacent about defending its freedoms; and an America that remains a steady beacon of hope for all mankind.”

In the two years that followed, the press who covered him learned not to miss a day at the Pentagon.

Here are highlights’ of Mattis' quotes on key issues faced during his tenure as secretary of defense.


Feb. 3, 2017: “I’m here to underscore America’s priority commitment to our bilateral alliance {with South Korea) and to make clear the administration’s full commitment to the United Nations mission in defense of your democracy.”

Feb. 11, 2018: “I know that people are watching for a wedge between South Korea, Republic of Korea, in other words, and the United States. There’s no wedge there. The military staffs are integrated. If you move up to the political level, Admiral Song, Minister of Defense Song, flew into Hawaii when I was out in the Pacific, just so he and I could sit down face to face and consult. He broached it to me. He said — as a matter of fact, in his opening remarks he said to the press that there is no wedge; there’s no gap at all. So in a political level in Seoul, there is no wedge that can be driven between us by North Korea.”


June 24, 2018: “As it was decided in Singapore, the large joint combined effort sizes have been suspended, I would just say, and we’ll see if the continuing negotiations keep them that way. But right now, they’ve been suspended. That’s what I can say and I’m not going to — I don’t have a crystal ball. No one does. It’s up to the diplomats to make sure this goes OK.”


Feb. 14, 2017: “This has been the most successful military alliance in history, one that was set up to protect Western Europe.”

March 31, 2017: “We are going to maintain article five as absolute bedrock of the NATO alliance. And we will, as you see with the European Reassurance Initiative, act according if Russia chooses to be a strategic competitor.”


Nov. 29, 2018: ″We are going to do our level best to protect the Afghan people. You have 41 nations working in the largest wartime coalition in modern history .... I know it’s been going on a long time. The largest coalition in modern history to fight a war under NATO, 41 nations, and their devotion is to ending the war and to protecting the Afghan people. It’d be nice if the Taliban would get a line with the reconciliation effort and stop murdering their own people, but yeah we’ll — we’ll keep at it.”


Sept. 24, 2018: Remember what our goal is in Syria is to end this tragedy that would’ve been a long ago absent Russia and Iran supporting Assad in everything that you’ve seen unfold .... what we want to do is make certain that ISIS does not come back and upset everything again."


Feb. 20, 2017: “I’ve had some rather contentious times with the press, but no, the press, as far as I’m concerned, are a constituency that we deal with, and the — I don’t have any issues with the press myself.”

That relationship would become more cautious over his tenure, particularly over stories involving potential disagreements with the White House, or operations. He eventually would call out specific stories.

July 13, 2018: “I also just heard about this story that the Pentagon’s in damage control. That was fascinating. I love reading fiction, so it was stimulating to read it. I find out that while I’ve been with you in full transparency on the airplane with you watching what’s going on that I’ve been in damage control .... So anyway, people are entitled to their own opinion, even if it’s not facts-based.”

Nervousness among allies, which was reported in the story Mattis called out above, was ultimately one of the reasons Mattis resigned.


Sept. 18, 2017: “It’s hard to believe that we could reduce flying hours and not have, you know, a less capable — there’s a reason why we think we need a certain number of hours, that said, on data. But I am not willing to say right now that there’s a direct line between sequestration and what has happened. I am willing to say, as we look at the circumstances surrounding it, we’re going to take a very close look at that.”

June 11, 2018: “What we’re doing on readiness, there is trailing indicators, I would call them, in other words, you can — if you fail to do things five years ago, three years ago, one year ago, you don’t reverse all those things with the money that Congress has given us, which is significant ..... We’ll just have to watch and see how this goes.”


Feb. 17, 2018: ″We expect everyone to carry their share of the load, and you know, sometimes things happen, people bust their legs in training or they’re in a car accident, we understand that, and if they — sometimes that even takes a months of recovery. We understand that. But this is a deployable military. It’s a lethal military that aligns with our allies and partners. If you can’t go overseas in your combat load — carry a combat load, then obviously someone else has got to go. I want this spread fairly and equitably across the force.


Aug. 7, 2018: “Our mission is to protect the Constitution, protect our way of life, protect our elections, maintain the integrity of the election process, that is what we do in support of Department of Homeland Security and we protect against anyone who would try to muck around from outside the country."


Feb. 20, 2017: “Welcome to Democracy. It’s at times wildly contentious. It’s at times quite sporting. But the bottom line is, this is the best form of government that we can come up with. So the military’s job is to hold the line, and to hold the line and to hold the line, while our government sorts out the way ahead and our people speak.”

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

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