Retired Gen. James Mattis "surprised" President-elect Donald Trump by suggesting that he rethink his position on waterboarding, telling him that "beer and cigarettes" were a better alternative in terror suspect interrogations.
Trump said that the advice from Mattis, a front-runner for the defense secretary post in a Trump administration, would weigh heavily on whether he will go forward with campaign pledges to bring back waterboarding and torture in interrogations by the military and the CIA.
In his meeting last week with the man he calls "Mad Dog Mattis," Trump said he asked, "What do you think of waterboarding? He said -- I was surprised -- he said, 'I've never found it to be useful.' "
Trump said Mattis told him, " 'I've always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.' "
Trump said he was not entirely convinced. "I'm not saying it changed my mind. Look, we have people that are chopping off heads and drowning people in steel cages, and we're not allowed to waterboard. But I'll tell you what, I was impressed by that answer" from Mattis.
Trump called Mattis "a very respected guy. In fact, I met with a number of other generals. They say he's the finest there is. He is being seriously, seriously considered for secretary of defense."
"I think it's time, maybe it's time for a general," Trump said, although Mattis, if he accepted the nomination, would need a waiver from Congress on the seven-year rule against military officers taking cabinet posts.
The 66-year-old Mattis retired in 2013 after 44 years of service in which he became a Marine Corps legend.
Trump made the comments in a wide-ranging and non-confrontational interview Tuesday with reporters and editors of The New York Times, a newspaper he often pilloried during the campaign for what he called biased coverage. The Times published a transcript of the interview Wednesday.
In his lengthy response to the waterboarding question from the Times' Maggie Haberman, Trump again said he was surprised to find that Mattis agreed with the current policy backed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice against waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" that were sanctioned under the administration of former President George W. Bush.
Trump said he ultimately would be guided by public opinion if he decided to press for changes in the policy. "If it's so important to the American people, I would go for it. I would be guided by that," he said.
"But General Mattis found it to be very less important, much less important than I thought he would say," Trump said. "I thought he would say -- you know, he's known as Mad Dog Mattis, right? Mad Dog for a reason. I thought he'd say, 'It's phenomenal, don't lose it.' "
However, Mattis "actually said, 'No, give me some cigarettes and some drinks, and we'll do better,' " Trump said.
Retired CIA, military, Justice Department and Bush administration officials have been on both sides of the issue on the efficacy of waterboarding, which is banned by the Geneva Conventions.
Upon taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama issued executive orders banning the use of enhanced interrogation techniques.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, last week warned that Trump would have a fight on his hands if he moved to change the policy on waterboarding.
"I don't give a damn what the president of the United States wants to do or anybody else wants to do," McCain said. "We will not waterboard. We will not do it."
McCain, who was subjected to torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said, "My God, what does it say about America if we're going to inflict torture on people?"
McCain's remarks were met by applause during a panel discussion at the Halifax International Security Conference in Nova Scotia.
The senator, who has said that he did not vote for Trump, has also hailed the possible choice of Mattis as defense secretary. "I am pleased that the president-elect found General Jim Mattis as impressive as I have in the many years I have had the privilege of knowing him," he said in a statement.
McCain added that "General Mattis has a clear understanding of the many challenges facing the Department of Defense, the U.S. military, and our national security. I hope he has an opportunity to serve America again."
Others believed to be under consideration as defense secretary include Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton; Jim Talent, a retired Republican senator from Missouri; and Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser under President George W. Bush.