RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President-elect Donald Trump has already made three top Cabinet appointments - national security adviser, retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn; Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general; and Congressman Mike Pompeo for CIA director. He has yet to nominate anyone for secretary of state or defense. One of the people who may be giving him advice on that last job opening is retired four-star General Jack Keane who was at Trump Tower talking with Donald Trump this past week. General Keane joins me now on the line.
General, thanks for being with us.
JACK KEANE: Well, thank you. Glad to be here.
MARTIN: I'm not going to ask you the details of your conversation with the president-elect. But I will ask you this - you did not publicly support him in the campaign. Would you be willing to serve in the Trump administration?
KEANE: Well, I was asked to serve, but I'm not able to. I have some personal issues surrounding the death of my wife recently. And I explained all of that to Mr. Trump, and he was very gracious and understanding and quite supportive. But I did make a - then he said, well, if not you, then who?
And I did give him a couple of recommendations. I won't hide them. One was General Jim Mattis, and the other is General Dave Petraeus. If, indeed, they are looking for someone who is a military person to be secretary of defense, as - and I think that you know and our audience knows, that is quite an exception. We've only done that once before since there's been an office of the secretary of defense. And that was General, George Marshall, you know, post-World War II.
Normally and quite appropriately, I think, we look for someone who is a civilian and not a military person, although they may have served. But they didn't have a career of service, so to speak. And that is largely driven by the fact that we want a civilian to control the military and the military to respond to a civilian authority, which I have strong feelings about.
But that had nothing to do with, you know, my inability to serve.
KEANE: All that said, the rule is that you must be separated seven years from your military service before you can take a position like secretary of defense. So that is another issue and another bar that a retired military person would have to cross.
MARTIN: Yeah, Jim Mattis in particular.
You know Donald Trump has suggested - in his past rhetoric, he has said, quote, "I know more than the generals when it comes to defeating ISIS." Are you convinced that he understands what he knows and what he doesn't know about national security and that he would take the advice of the generals?
KEANE: Well, I'll tell you - my reference to Mr. Trump just is - I got a Man of the Year award with him many years ago in New York City - we co-chaired this thing. And I've never had a conversation since until the other day. And I really found him quite personable, engaging. He asked very good questions on national security. He genuinely wants to learn something in an area he doesn't - he's not alone in that. Most president-elects, at this point, you know, really don't have much background in national security. That certainly was the case for President Obama, President Bush, President Clinton, President Reagan.
But he - it comes across very clearly that he wants to do well. In dealing with this question and that statement that you're referencing, that's an interesting one. And I do have an opportunity to point out to him that the issue here had nothing to do with the generals. It had to do with the president's policy. As a matter of fact, as I've said publicly, in terms of force levels that our generals have made, a few of the commanders - those in Afghanistan and those in Iraq - the president - President Obama never accepted a force-level recommendation from them one time. He always rejected it and either did not accept it at all or dramatically reduced it, as he did with Generals McChrystal and Petraeus when they decided to conduct - escalate the war in Afghanistan to put in place...
MARTIN: So you're saying the executive branch, in the end, has a lot of control anyway.
KEANE: Yeah, exactly. I mean, these were the president's policy decisions. The military executes policy decisions. The military knows how to...
KEANE: ...Fight a war. And I told him - if you're going to do what you suggest - said you were going to do and ask for a campaign plan from the Pentagon for how to defeat ISIS, believe me, you'll get a comprehensive campaign plan with many options in it that this president has never asked for.
MARTIN: Just briefly, Donald Trump said he supports waterboarding and that it works. Retired four-star General John Allen, who endorsed Hillary Clinton, has said he fears a President Trump could use the military to carry out an illegal order. Do you share that concern?
KEANE: I heard that during the campaign. I don't know. I suspect that as Mr. Trump takes the office of the president of the United States, is surrounded by seasoned, experienced advisers; understands exactly what is in our interrogation program right now, which I'm not convinced he does know - I mean, I think we're dealing with a campaign issue, so to speak - and they're not - then when he has all the information, I kind of suspect - I don't know - but I kind of suspect he'd probably make the right decision...
MARTIN: We're going to...
KEANE: ...Based on all that information.
MARTIN: Thank you so much, General. We're going to have to leave it there. Retired four-star General Jack Keane, thank you so much for your time.
KEANE: Good talking to you Rachel. Take care. Bye-bye.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.