• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

Defense Secretary Mattis Joins Tillerson In Rebuking Trump Over Charlottesville

Donald Trump James Mattis

A video circulating on social media appears to show Secretary of Defense James Mattis obliquely rebuking President Trump in comments to U.S. forces stationed abroad:

Defense Secretary James Mattis gave a pep talk to U.S. troops stationed abroad during his trip to three countries last week.

In a video that has recently surfaced on social media, Mattis is seen speaking to U.S. troops in an unknown location. In his remarks to the troops, Mattis said the U.S. is facing “problems.”

“Our country right now, it’s got problems we don’t have in the military,” Mattis said. “You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”

Mattis said the U.S. has “two powers” — “inspiration” and “intimidation.””We’ve got the power of intimidation, and that’s you, if someone wants to screw with our families, our country and our allies,” Mattis said. “The power of inspiration — [and] we’ll get the power of inspiration back.”

He also thanked the troops for their service and said he came out of retirement to “serve alongside young people like you who are so selfless and, frankly, so rambunctious.”

It’s unclear where the video was taken, but Mattis traveled to Jordan, Turkey and Ukraine over the last week, meeting with top officials to discuss U.S. cooperation in the region. His comments likely came during a week of national turmoil following violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Here’s the video:

Slate’s Fred Kaplan comments:

Mattis’ remarks were far more damning and, because of that, disturbing. His statement was neither rehearsed nor meant to be public. He ambled over to a small group of service members on a base that he was visiting, and his remarks were captured on a phone camera, which someone was holding discreetly at waist level. The exact date and location of the conversation is unknown but it likely took place during Mattis’ trip to Jordan, Turkey, and Ukraine last week. What he said, more potent than it might seem at first glance, is worth unpacking.

“You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”

I suppose that, if asked to explain himself, Mattis could say that he was addressing troubles and tensions in the country in general, quite apart from anything the president had said or provoked. But in the wake of Charlottesville, only a dolt would believe that explanation. The target was clearly Trump, and if you don’t accept that, there was this:

“The power of inspiration—we’ll get the power of inspiration back.”

Mattis has referred to these “two powers” in many public forums before. In this instance, he says that we still have the power of intimidation (“that’s you,” he told the troops), but we’ve lost the power of inspiration for the moment (“we’ll get [that] back”). The only way to interpret this is that Mattis was saying the president—who is usually the one who embodies this power through words, deeds, or preferably both—has through his words and deeds surrendered this power.

Here, then, was the secretary of defense—whose credibility and authority rest largely on his combat valor as a recently retired Marine four-star general—all but acknowledging to the servicemen and women he oversees that the country they serve is broken and that the commander in chief, whose lawful orders they have sworn to obey, has helped break it.

So where does that leave Mattis himself? On the one hand, many Americans are rightly thankful that someone of Mattis’ experience and caliber is where he is, so that he might ward off catastrophe if Trump ever faces a foreign crisis that’s not of his own making.

On the other hand, this isn’t quite how American democracy is supposed to work. There’s a reason the Founding Fathers stressed the need for civilian control of the military. There’s a reason the founding documents of the Defense Department, created just 70 years ago, re-emphasized the principle. It’s customary for the armed forces to serve as the bulwark against foreign enemies; it’s something unusual, and disconcerting, for them to do so against the whims and outbursts of the country’s elected commander in chief.

We’ve been down a similar road before. In the summer of 1974, as President Nixon raged and ranted in drunken bouts of anger and paranoia (he would be forced to resign, under pressures of likely impeachment, in August), then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger told the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. George Brown, to consult with him before executing any unusual orders from the White House.

Things never came to that crossroad. If they had, and if Brown had obeyed Schlesinger instead of Nixon, that would have amounted to an act of grave insubordination, even a coup d’etat—though an ultimately patriotic one.

The news about Mattis’s comments come just days after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson distanced himself from the President in the wake of Trump’s comments regarding the violence in Charlottesville and his failure to sufficiently rebuke the white supremacist alt-right movement and leaders that were responsible for the bulk of it. Late last week, Gary Cohn, the head of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers, responded to nearly a weeks worth of pressure from national Jewish organizations calling on him and other Jewish members of Trump’s cabinet to take a stand against Trump’s implicit endorsement of the neo-Nazi rhetoric of the marchers and organizers of the rally in Charlottesville where participants were videotaped chanting Nazi-like slogans such as “Blood and Soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!.” Cohn finally responded last Friday with comments that clearly distanced himself from the President. Additionally, Trump was seemingly rebuked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who issued public statements via their official Twitter accounts saying that the U.S. military remains committed to standing against bigotry and hatred. Secretary of Defense James Mattis backed up his Chiefs in a public statement early last week.

On some level, I share Kaplan’s concerns about the idea of the military leadership clearly rebuking the Commander in Chief even though they didn’t directly invoke his name. The principle of civilian control of the military is an important and long-standing one, and even though Mattis is retired he is still a retired General who is arguably closer to the men and women in uniform than he is to the President and the civilians in the White House. Appearing to openly disparage the President in front of the troops is therefore highly unusual to say the very least. At the same time, though, it seems clear that Mattis and the Joint Chiefs are concerned that Trump’s rhetoric and conduct may be sending the wrong message to the troops regarding both what constitutes proper behavior and the ultra-sensitive issues surrounding race relations. In that regard, of course, it’s worth noting that this is something that the military has been concerned about since at least the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 when it became apparent that Timothy McVeigh had come out of his brief time in uniform and fallen in line with the right-wing militia groups that had at least some links to disaffected veterans. Given that, the civilian and military leadership likely wanted to send a signal to the troops that there is no room in the military for racial prejudice, and that the comments that the President has made cannot be seen as a license to engage in discriminatory activity or use rhetoric that is racially derogatory.

So far at least there’s been no sign that Trump is upset with Tillerson, Cohn or Mattis, at least not judging by anything he’s said publicly. That could change at any time, of course, but it may well be that Trump believes he needs these men at his side if he’s going to get anything accomplished, especially when it comes to issues like foreign and economic policy. Given that it’s Trump we’re talking about, that’s something that could change at any time. And, of course, the comments about Charlottesville are unlikely to be the last time this President something that offends Americans values. At that point, it will be up to the men and women around him whether they still want to be seen as tacitly endorsing a man who is clearly out of control.

Related Posts:

About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    What if someone gave a fascist revolution and nobody came?

    While it is disturbing to discover that a third of Americans are racist, sexist, homophobic morons – also known as ‘conservative’ evangelical Christians – I’m fascinated at the lack of response to Trump and Company’s Back To The Führer TV show. He’s not really getting the ratings. A third of the country are complete aszholes, but two-thirds are not.

    Hooray?

    One of my self-reassuring theories way back in November when this plague first broke out, was that the cultural disconnect between Trump 1939 and USA 2017 would seal the MAGArons off from the larger culture. It’s been kind of amazing and certainly reassuring to see it play out that way. I’m not even surprised to see the US military on ‘our’ side. Big business, Hollywood, the media, academia and the US Army are upholding the moral standards evangelical Christians have abandoned. I predicted it and yet I’m still amazed.

    The broader culture has treated Trump like an invading infectious organism. The lymphocytes and anti-bodies have effectively stopped his ability to replicate – helped immensely by Trump’s immaturity, stupidity and entirely reasonable obsession with threats of impeachment and prison. And now the system is being pumped full of an experimental new antibiotic named Mueller.

    It’s tick tock for Trump. The noose is tightening. Every day he has fewer friends and supporters. His guilt is now established beyond reasonable doubt. The country waits for the GOP to decide whether it is Maquis or Vichy.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 4

  2. dazedandconfused says:

    I’ll speculate the reason Trump isn’t going after his cabinet is he knows he’s being a dick. Per Bannon’s grand strategery, racial trolling isn’t a bug it’s a feature.

    It may be bad for the long game but for the short one it may be the only thing keeping Congress in line. A tiny percentage of the population votes in R primaries, so small that a radical faction, perhaps no more than 1% of the general population, can dominate that process if properly energized. A threat from the POTUS to mobilize his base to primary them remains, for the moment, well-fanged.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  3. CSK says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    I’ll raise you one on this: Trump, quite literally, has no idea what he’s doing. He thought being the president consists of Tweeting, watching “the shows,” and holding a pep rally every time he needs his huge but fragile ego inflated. He’s an ignoramus with neither the desire nor the ability to learn the most rudimentary aspects of governing. He appeals to the worst in the worst. He has some kind of sick emotional dependence on his elder daughter and her husband, who will bail on him when it gets to the point that the very precarious toehold they’ve managed to grasp on the absolute lowest rung of the Manhattan social circles Mangolini desperately tried and failed to crash is jeopardized.

    Of course Mattis knows Trump is a malignant buffoon. So does Kelly. I believe what I’ve read about Mattis and Kelly agreeing not to be out of the country simultaneously so that one of them will be there to throw a butterfly net over this geriatric toddler if he decides to start a nuclear war because someone insulted his comb-over.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    There actually is a group of people who have the ability and the legal means to do something about the current whackaloon in the White House, and yet…. Nobody seems to expect the Republicans in Congress to actually do anything about this situation. (impeaching the president is just one of the powers at their disposal)

    it may well be that Trump believes he needs these men at his side if he’s going to get anything accomplished, especially when it comes to issues like foreign and economic policy. Given that it’s Trump we’re talking about, that’s something that could change at any time.

    trump isn’t trying to accomplish anything more than his own shameless self promotion, Doug. That’s his only policy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Andy says:

    I don’t read Mattis’ comments as rebuking Trump at all. To me, it’s all statements of fact about the conditions in the military and our country generally. To call them a “rebuke” of Trump is projecting.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  6. Scott says:

    Brown had obeyed Schlesinger instead of Nixon, that would have amounted to an act of grave insubordination, even a coup d’etat—though an ultimately patriotic one.

    This has always been somewhat a theoretical argument. I will point out that Commissioned Officers swear to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States”. Nothing about obeying the President although it is implied in the Constitutions designation of Commander in Chief.

    Enlisted oath is the same with the added words of “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me.”

    Obedience to the Constitution is first in both cases. Perhaps intentionally so.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. Kylopod says:

    @michael reynolds:

    are upholding the moral standards evangelical Christians have abandoned

    Your phrasing implies that evangelicals once had those moral standards and have only now thrown them away. But the entire evangelical movement in this country has deep roots in white supremacy. The separation into white and black churches, the very existence of the Southern Baptist Convention (which was formed over slavery)–all these things are legacies of the country’s history of racism. The states with the largest proportions of evangelicals are all in the South. So it really isn’t too surprising that the evangelicals would be the group most receptive to Trump’s message.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  8. CSK says:

    Mattis just froze Trump’s ban on transgendered people serving in the military.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  9. Mister Bluster says:

    @Scott:..Obedience to the Constitution is first in both cases. Perhaps intentionally so.

    See Article VI:
    This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. CET says:

    I’ve actually been pretty impressed at the extent to which Mattis and McMaster have managed to thread the needle with this administration. On the one hand, they are in a unique position to stand up to him and keep his worst impulses (say, nuking North Korea in a fit of pique) from becoming policy. On the other hand, they have been pretty careful about not overtly flouting civilian control of the military in public.

    It’s certainly tempting to want them to do more of the latter, but I think that our cultural aversion to having the military weigh in on political issues is already weaker than it should be. When the praetorian guard killed Caligula, it was probably a good idea at the time, but the precedent it set was disastrous for Roman Empire…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  11. KM says:

    @Scott:

    Nothing about obeying the President although it is implied in the Constitutions designation of Commander in Chief.

    This is because the Founders knew damn well what happened when one person, holding an Office of high power and control, went off the rails. The Office derives its authority from the Constitution and thus is nothing without it. This is what Trumptards don’t get when they whine that he’s not getting the respect he deserves as President. The Office of the President deserves respect, the butt in the seat not so much. The military serves the nation, not the President. There has always been wording so that should someone in power order the troops to do something blatantly unconstitutional, they can legally disobey while still maintaining the concept of chain of command.

    That quote is interesting because it shows off the mindset of certain groups. Coup d’etat is not telling the President “we are not doing this, sir”. It’s when you actively remove the sitting powers from power. Grave insubordination requires disobeying legal and lawful orders. One can easily argue that disobeying someone’s drunken stupidity was lawful in that they were in an altered state and thus not capable of issuing legal orders. The military isn’t supposed to obey every damn thing that comes out of a superior’s mouth. There are rules, structures and defintions for good reason.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  12. CSK says:

    Somewhat OT, but according to MSNBC, Sebastian Gorka has had his name added to the White House “DO NOT ADMIT” list.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. Moosebreath says:

    @CSK:

    I saw that Gorka’s change to Do Not Admit status occurred before he was told he was fired, and while he still had his White House passes on him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. CSK says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Sort of undercuts his claim that he resigned, doesn’t it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. James Pearce says:

    @CSK:

    Mattis just froze Trump’s ban on transgendered people serving in the military.

    Nah, the “freeze” is part of the plan. Absent a successful court challenge, the ban will go into effect, per plan, on March 23rd of next year.

    @Andy:

    To call them a “rebuke” of Trump is projecting.

    Kinda leaning in this direction too.

    When Mattis says “Our country, right now, it’s got problems that we don’t have in the military,” he might be talking about activist lefties, which they “don’t have in the military” and is, from a Trumpist perspective, causing a lot of problems.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  16. Not the IT Dept. says:

    What a shitty thing to say, James. Of course it was “activist lefties” who tweeted a change of policy without consulting the Pentagon or the Joint Chiefs. Sure it was.

    And Mattis did it again today when he contradicted Trump about NK, saying that America is not out of diplomatic options re that country.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. CSK says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    Mattis must dread checking Twitter every morning when he wakes. What a way to start the day. I imagine he’s waiting for the morning when Trump tweets something he can’t clean up.

    @James Pearce:

    The point is that Trump thought he could tweet the order and have it go into effect immediately.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. James Pearce says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    What a shitty thing to say, James.

    Yeah, that’s what I do: say the shitty things no one wants to hear.

    When Mattis, a Trump appointee, talks about losing “the power of inspiration,” why do you think he’s talking about his boss and not, for instance, the national anthem protests from football players?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  19. CET says:

    @James Pearce:

    why do you think he’s talking about his boss and not, for instance, the national anthem protests from football players?

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can think of 3 reasons why I do (other than timing):

    1) “You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”
    I’ll grant that I may not be current on racist dog whistles, but to me, statements like this scan as an implicit rebuke of white nationalism (they may directed towards antifa as well, but I think that’s justified).

    2) I haven’t seen any evidence to indicate that Mattis subscribes to ‘race realism’ or whatever we’re calling the current set of pseudo-intellectual facades that white supremacists are hiding behind.

    3) My read of the military is that it tends to be a melting pot. Given that the military is relatively diverse (~17% black, ~12% hispanic)*, overt racism is going to affect unit cohesion. That isn’t to say that no one in uniform is a racist, or that discrimination doesn’t take place, just that integration is structurally favored by a mindset that emphasizes loyalty to your fellow soldiers. If you might need the soldier next to you to drag your wounded body out of a firefight, it’s probably in your best interests to respect them (or at least to fake it).

    *http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/13/6-facts-about-the-u-s-military-and-its-changing-demographics/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. James Pearce says:

    @CET:

    statements like this scan as an implicit rebuke of white nationalism

    And yet, whenever I hear Trump people talk about talking what “our country gets back to,” it’s not implicitly rebuking white nationalism, is it?

    I don’t think Mattis is a racist. I think you’ll probably see genuine efforts from him to promote racial harmony, especially in the ranks, for the very reasons you described.

    But we know who he works for.

    And Tillerson, with his “The president speaks for himself.” That’s not a rebuke either. That’s “I don’t need to block for this guy because you can’t tackle him anyway.”

    None of this is good.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. dazedandconfused says:

    @CSK:

    I’ll raise you one on this: Trump, quite literally, has no idea what he’s doing.

    Could be, but IMO there has been too much pandering to white racists for it to be random. Knowing what one is doing is not mutually exclusive with being dumb and/or bereft of honor and ethics.

    Some have said they do not see Mattis’ comments as related to Trump’s most recent behavior. It was, for them, just an unfortunate coincidence I imagine. However the odds are rather long that Mattis chose this moment to stick his nose into racial issues without some perception of need. He’s not dumb, and the main issue in public discourse at the moment is the s-storm on the topic his boss is making. My WAG is he has determined that he must be free to conduct damage control or he is willing to be fired.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0