During a so-called "thank you" tour in Cincinnati, Ohio, amid all the gloating and rehashing of his Electoral College victory, President-elect Donald Trump made some serious news: He announced his pick for secretary of defense, retired Marine General James "Mad Dog" Mattis. The selection has made a lot of news for various reasons, from Mattis' past statements about combating "political Islam" to his litany of strange, often intense quotes, and notably, his ties to a controversial and embattled startup. If you're wondering how Mattis is involved with Theranos, he has a high-level connection.
There's a pretty good chance you read about the Theranos controversy earlier this year. Founded in 2003 by Elizabeth Holmes, the company aspired to revolutionize and fast-track blood testing, but was ultimately beset by scandal when major flaws and inconsistencies in its testing systems were alleged ― flaws Holmes acknowledged publicly as the controversy mounted. The whole fracas resulted with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services barring Holmes from running a laboratory for at least two years, although she's still the CEO of the company. Theranos has since withdrawn from operating labs, instead focusing on production of compact, miniature testing devices.
So, how is Trump's new defense secretary pick tied up in all this? He's a member of Theranos' board of directors, with his name still appearing alongside Holmes' on the company's website.
Mattis spoke staunchly in Holmes' favor back in 2014, for a profile of the CEO and her startup in Fortune. In it, he equated her leadership style and Theranos' sense of shared purpose with his ideal view of how the military ought to operate:
She really does want to make a dent in the universe–one that is positive. ... The strength of the leader’s vision in the military is seen as the critical element in that unit’s performance. I wanted to be around something again that had that sort of leadership.
Needless to say, Mattis may soon be in the position to find out which leader has the stronger vision ― Holmes, or the soon-to-be president of the United States, who once claimed (but based on some of his rumored cabinet considerations, apparently didn't believe) that he knew "more about ISIS than the generals do." Mattis would make the second general slotted into the Trump administration, following retired Army General Michael Flynn, a longtime Trump loyalist who'll serve as national security adviser.
There's one potential obstacle in Mattis' way, as he will need to secure a waiver from Congress allowing him to serve. Defense secretary is meant to be a civilian-led post, and ex-military are required to be out of service for seven years before taking such a job. Mattis retired from his post in 2013, meaning the 65-year-old couldn't head up the Department of Defense without such a waiver until 2020.
For its part, Theranos has parted ways with a number of high-profile names on its board of counselors, particularly ones with no background in medicine, and more of an emphasis on militarism or American statecraft ― namely, former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger. Mattis will reportedly stay on the company's board of directors, but that could change by his appointment to Trump's cabinet.