This post has been updated, 5:12 p.m.
“The speculation about who replaces Mattis is now more real than ever,” said a senior White House official who was not authorized to speak about internal matters. “The president has always respected him. But now he has every reason to wonder what Mattis is saying behind his back. The relationship has nowhere to go but down, fast.”
No decisions have been made. A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Pentagon spokesperson Thomas Crosson told me: “Currently, Secretary Mattis is in New Delhi, along with Secretary Pompeo, at the 2+2 to meet his counterpart — fulfilling his commitment to build new partnerships. The secretary is fully engaged and committed to ensuring the U.S. military remains the most lethal in the world.”
But several administration and congressional officials said that a shortlist for his successor is already being constructed in an informal manner.
At the top of the list is retired four-star Army Gen. Jack Keane, administration and congressional officials said. Keane retired in 2003 and served as vice chief of staff of the Army. Unlike Mattis, Keane would not need a congressional waiver to serve as defense secretary because he’s out of military service more than seven years. He is widely respected in Congress, inside the administration and by the president himself.
“He has strong relationships across the administration and the president likes his TV profile,” the senior White House official said. “He comes across as strong and competent — like a more partisan Mattis.”
Having another retired general run the Defense Department could raise concerns about deterioration of civilian control over the military, as it did when Trump chose Mattis. But multiple congressional officials told me that a Keane nomination would be met with broad support in Congress, given the even greater concerns on Capitol Hill about Trump’s handling of national security amid a range of complex and growing threats.
“Trump needs somebody he respects and he respects General Keane,” a senior GOP congressional aide told me. “I think he has the right skill set and attributes to be effective with this administration. And he’ll work well with the rest of the Cabinet.”
Other names under discussion inside the White House include Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), former Treasury Department official David McCormick and former senator Jim Talent of Missouri. Depending on the party balance in the Senate after the November elections, Republican leadership may not want to risk losing one its caucus members, especially Cotton, who defeated a Democrat for his seat in 2014.
Graham has repeatedly said he is not interested in serving in the Cabinet. McCormick was considered during the transition for deputy positions in both the Defense and Treasury departments. Talent was also considered for defense secretary in late 2016.
Keane declined to comment. Sources said Keane has not had any recent discussions with White House officials about being considered for the defense secretary job. Keane spoke broadly about his vision for national security and defense policy at Wednesday’s conference at the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank whose board he chairs.
Keane endorsed Trump’s National Security Strategy and Mattis’s own National Defense Strategy, released this year, which calls for a return to great power competition with “revisionist powers” Russia and China. Keane warned about Iran’s regional expansion, noted North Korea’s pledge to denuclearize and highlighted the continuing threat from radical Islamic groups, including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Tracking closely with Trump’s own philosophy, Keane called for a reinvestment in the U.S. military, which he said has suffered from years of insufficient funding and support.
“I believe the security of the United States is at greater risk than at any time in decades,” Keane said. “America’s military superiority, which has been the backbone of our global influence and national security, has eroded to dangerous levels. America’s ability to defend its allies, partners and our own vital interests is increasingly in doubt.”