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Defense Secretary Mattis avoids the press. But he found time for a high school newspaper.

James Mattis leans back in his chair to look at the camera over the heads of other people.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon in July.
Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who has been noticeably absent from the public spotlight since he was confirmed in January, has finally given one of his first extended press interviews — to a high school newspaper.

Yes, you read that right. The media outlet that got Mattis to agree to sit down for an interview wasn’t a big-name publication like the Washington Post or the New York Times — it was the Mercer Island High School newspaper, the Islander, in Washington state.

Islander staff writer Teddy Fischer published a more than 5,000-word interview with the defense secretary in late June. The newspaper landed the interview after reaching out to Mattis following the Washington Post’s accidental release of his private cellphone number in May.

The young reporter asked Mattis a number of hard-hitting questions on topics ranging from strategies for fighting terrorism and ideologically motivated violence to the US military’s role in combat operations in Iraq to whether Middle Eastern theocracies can become more moderate.

Here’s the full text of one of the questions Fischer asked Mattis:

Do you believe the international community needs to provide greater assistance in combating terror? Trump has consistently criticized nations, especially those a part of NATO, as not paying their fair share. Is this true and do countries need to help the U.S. more in Middle Eastern conflicts?

Again, this is from a high school student.

And to his credit, Mattis gave Fischer straightforward, detailed, and at times revealing answers, rightfully treating him as a serious journalist rather than a kid playing at being a reporter.

In response to a question about the differences between the Trump and Obama administrations’ approaches to the Middle East, for instance, Mattis said:

I was a NATO officer and then a central command officer under President Obama and he was trying to reach out to the Arab people. He unfortunately didn’t always have the best advisors or he didn’t listen to his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, so we missed some opportunities there. But I think also under the Obama administration, there was a more of an accelerated campaign against the terrorists than perhaps the Obama administration was willing to sustain.

I think the two administrations are more variations on a theme than they are dramatically different approaches. Obviously, the Israelis and the Arabs seem to have warmed more to Mr. Trump, especially over the succeeding years after the first year of the Obama administration where it actually went pretty well. Year by year, things went worse and worse from the Arabs and the Israelis perspectives.

Essentially, President Trump’s defense secretary is stating that one of Obama’s biggest mistakes in his approach toward the Middle East was not listening to Hillary Clinton. That’s a remarkably candid and revealing statement that any professional journalist would be proud to have elicited from such a tight-lipped senior administration official — and Mattis gave it to a high school newspaper reporter.

Mattis’s first extended interview took place in May when he sat down with CBS’s Face the Nation, and he participated appeared in several joint press conferences. But other than that, he has been relatively quiet. So why is he talking freely with high school journalists while giving major media outlets the cold shoulder?

Fischer asked the secretary that exact question: “Out of thousands of calls, why did you respond to this one?”

Mattis responded:

I’ve always tried to help students because I think we owe it to you young folks to pass on what we learned going down the road so that you can make your own mistakes, not the same ones we made.

You left a message there and I was going through listening to the messages and deleting them. But you’re from Washington state. I grew up in Washington state on the other side of the mountains there on the Columbia River. I just thought I’d give you a call.

Pentagon spokesperson Capt. Jeff Davis had another explanation for why Mattis has avoided the press: “He’s not somebody who likes to be public on a lot of things,” Davis said during a meeting with reporters on June 20.

According to Vox’s Alex Ward, Mattis doesn’t seem to have open disdain for the press like President Trump. He has just been trying to stay out of the political fray and doesn’t like to get bogged down in media relations and interviews.

But Mattis did acknowledge the importance of communicating with the press in his interview with the Islander. When Fischer asked about how the US could be more successful in its military interventions in other countries going forward, Mattis said that one key element was to “explain to the American people and the American [C]ongress what you’re doing and get the whole world behind you.”

With the nation currently engaged in wars in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Mattis could be warming to the fact that he needs to communicate more with the public.

Or he just has a soft spot for high school newspapers. Either way, suffice it to say that the Islander’s Fischer seems to have a promising career in journalism ahead of him if he wants it.

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