James Mattis On The Way Out? It Sure Looks That Way

Reports about tension between Defense Secretary James Mattis and President Trump are becoming louder, and it's being suggested that Mattis could be out of office after the midterms.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that the relationship between Donald Trump and his Secretary of Defense is fraying to the point where General Mattis’s future may be in doubt:

WASHINGTON — Back when their relationship was fresh and new, and President Trump still called his defense secretary “Mad Dog” — a nickname Jim Mattis detests — the wiry retired Marine general often took a dinner break to eat burgers with his boss in the White House residence.

Mr. Mattis brought briefing folders with him, aides said, to help explain the military’s shared “ready to fight tonight” strategy with South Korea, and why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has long been viewed as central to protecting the United States. Using his folksy manner, Mr. Mattis talked the president out of ordering torture against terrorism detainees and persuaded him to send thousands more American troops to Afghanistan — all without igniting the public Twitter castigations that have plagued other national security officials.

But the burger dinners have stopped. Interviews with more than a dozen White House, congressional and current and former Defense Department officials over the past six weeks paint a portrait of a president who has soured on his defense secretary, weary of unfavorable comparisons to Mr. Mattis as the adult in the room, and increasingly concerned that he is a Democrat at heart.

Nearly all of the officials, as well as confidants of Mr. Mattis, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal tensions — in some cases, out of fear of losing their jobs.

In the second year of his presidency, Mr. Trump has largely tuned out his national security aides as he feels more confident as commander in chief, the officials said. Facing what is likely to be a heated re-election fight once the 2018 midterms are over, aides said Mr. Trump was pondering whether he wanted someone running the Pentagon who would be more vocally supportive than Mr. Mattis, who is vehemently protective of the American military against perceptions it could be used for political purposes.

White House officials said Mr. Mattis had balked at a number of Mr. Trump’s requests. That included initially slow-walking the president’s order to ban transgender troops from the military and refusing a White House demand to stop family members from accompanying troops deploying to South Korea. The Pentagon worried that doing so could have been seen by North Korea as a precursor to war.

Over the last four months alone, the president and the defense chief have found themselves at odds over NATO policy, whether to resume large-scale military exercises with South Korea and, privately, whether Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal has proved effective.

The arrival at the White House earlier this year of Mira Ricardel, a deputy national security adviser with a history of bad blood with Mr. Mattis, has coincided with new assertions from the West Wing that the defense secretary may be asked to leave after the midterms.

Mr. Mattis himself is becoming weary, some aides said, of the amount of time spent pushing back against what Defense Department officials think are capricious whims of an erratic president.

The defense secretary has been careful to not criticize Mr. Trump outright. Pentagon officials said Mr. Mattis had bent over backward to appear loyal, only to be contradicted by positions the president later staked out. How much longer Mr. Mattis can continue to play the loyal Marine has become an open question in the Pentagon’s E Ring, home to the Defense Department’s top officials.

The fate of Mr. Mattis is important because he is widely viewed — by foreign allies and adversaries but also by the traditional national security establishment in the United States — as the cabinet official standing between a mercurial president and global tumult.

“Secretary Mattis is probably one of the most qualified individuals to hold that job,” Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. His departure from the Pentagon, Mr. Reed said, “would, first of all, create a disruption in an area where there has been competence and continuity.”

But that very sentiment is part of a narrative the president has come to resent.

The one-two punch last week of the Bob Woodward book that quoted Mr. Mattis likening Mr. Trump’s intellect to that of a “fifth or sixth grader,” combined with the New York Times Op-Ed by an unnamed senior administration official who criticized the president, has fueled Mr. Trump’s belief that he wants only like-minded loyalists around him. (Mr. Mattis has denied comparing his boss to an elementary school student and said he did not write the Op-Ed.)

Mr. Trump, two aides said, wants Mr. Mattis to be more like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a political supporter of the president. During a televised June 21 cabinet meeting, held as migrant children were being separated from their parents at the southwestern border, Mr. Mattis and Mr. Pompeo were a study of contrasts: On the president’s left, the defense secretary sat stone-faced; on his right, the secretary of state was chuckling at all of Mr. Trump’s jokes.

Getting Mr. Mattis to abandon the apolitical stand he has clung to his entire life will be next to impossible, his friends and aides

The difference between Mattis and Pompeo, of course, could not be more apparent. Pompeo is a career politician who was brought into the national security infrastructure when President Trump selected him to be Director of Central Intelligence and, later, Secretary of State. Mattis, on the other hand, is a career military man who has long eschewed politics both because of the career path he had chosen, which requires senior officers to stand outside politics as much as possible. To say that it is not in Mattis’s nature to play political games in the manner that Pompeo is no doubt well experienced is any an understatement. That is apparent not only in the extent to which Mattis avoids being obsequious toward Trump the way other members of the Cabinet can be seen so frequently acting but also in the fact that Mattis has made it clear that his primary function as Defense Secretary as he views it is not to make the President look good but to represent the men and women in uniform and civilians who serve under him at the Defense Department. Additionally, Pompeo clearly has political ambitions that look beyond Foggy Bottom and the end of the Trump Administration while Mattis likely views his time as Secretary of Defense as a coda on, and supplement to, the long and distinguished career he had while in uniform. To put it bluntly, Pompeo knows he needs to kiss up to Trump to keep his political future intact. Mattis, who was retired at the time he was drafted to become Secretary of Defense, on the other hand clearly doesn’t care about those political games. Honestly speaking, this is exactly what you want to see in a Secretary of Defense, but it’s probably not enough to survive the increasingly irrational mood swings of the President of the United States.

The Times report quoted above goes on:

Mr. Mattis has repeatedly been blindsided by his boss this summer.

In June, Mr. Trump ordered Mr. Mattis to set up a Space Force over the defense secretary’s objections that such a move would weigh down an already cumbersome bureaucracy.

In July, the president blew up a NATO summit meeting that Mr. Mattis and other national security officials had worked on for months. The Pentagon chief and others saved the final agreement only because they shielded it from the president and urged envoys to complete it before Mr. Trump arrived in Brussels.

In August, the president undercut Mr. Mattis after a news conference at the Pentagon in which the defense secretary suggested that the United States military would resume war games on the Korean Peninsula. The exercises had been suspended — against Mr. Mattis’s advice — after Mr. Trump met with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore. “There is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games,” the president tweeted.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mattis has begun questioning the efficacy of Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal — a move that, again, was made against his advice. Mr. Mattis has told aides that he has yet to see any difference in Iran’s behavior since Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement between world powers and Tehran.

The Los Angeles Times has more:

When Defense Secretary James N. Mattis declared last month that he had “no plans” to cancel future joint military exercises with South Korean forces, it brought him a very public rebuke from President Trump.

“There is no reason at this time to be spending large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games,” Trump fired back the next day in a tweet he labeled “Statement from the White House.” He underscored only “the President” could restart exercises he had abruptly suspended after his June summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The unusual spat highlighted Mattis’ precarious standing with Trump. The president once reveled in the 68-year-old retired Marine general’s reputation as a battle-hardened warrior — calling him “Mad Dog” to Mattis’ distress — but recently appears to have wearied of him, reportedly mocking him as “Moderate Dog.”

Current and former Pentagon officials who have observed the relationship firsthand cite growing signs of discord that raise questions about how much longer Mattis, long seen as a steadying force in the Trump Cabinet, will remain at the Pentagon.

More than specific policy disagreements, the growing estrangement stems from Trump’s belief that Mattis is secretly dismissive of him and constantly trying to outmaneuver him, officials say.

“He thinks Mattis isn’t loyal in the way Trump wants all his people to be loyal — publicly, unquestioningly and completely,” said a national security official who has observed the relationship and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic.

On the other side, associates say Mattis’ frustration at Trump’s often impetuous style and penchant for blindsiding the Pentagon with major policy announcements could prompt him eventually to quit.

Once-frequent phone calls between the two after Trump took office last year have dwindled to occasional conversations. Policy clashes that once unfolded in private are increasingly surfacing publicly, often because Trump seems determined to send a message to Mattis that he is in charge.

They have been at odds over Trump’s demand to bar transgender recruits from the military, his call to create a new armed service called space force, his verbal attacks on NATO allies, his suggestions that he may cut U.S. troop levels in Europe and Asia, and on the timetable for removing U.S. troops from Syria.

National security advisor John R. Bolton’s hard-line approach to Iran and other national security issues mesh better with Trump’s disruptive instincts than Mattis’ often more strategic approach, according to the officials.

Asked Wednesday at the Pentagon to describe his relationship with Trump, Mattis replied, “No problem. It’s been the same all along.”
Pressed whether he intended to serve out the rest of Trump’s first term, Mattis replied, “This is not a day I’m going to go further into politics,” and shortly thereafter ended the questions.

(…)

When Trump vowed massive reprisals against Syria last April for its use of chemical agents against civilians, Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the joint chiefs, provided a narrow target list that minimized the risk that Russian troops in Syria might be casualties of U.S. airstrikes, possibly sparking a wider war.

Mattis also has maneuvered Trump away from an abrupt withdrawal of the roughly 4,000 U.S. troops in eastern Syria.

He joined others on the national security team — Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and, lately Bolton — in making an argument to Trump: If U.S. troops are pulled out too soon, Islamic State might recover and again threaten Iraq, strengthening Iran.

But Mattis has had to absorb Trump’s frustration at the lack of quick, highly visible military victories.

The tensions have taken a toll on Mattis’ relationship with Trump, some current and former officials say.

The Pentagon chief’s refusal to air differences with the White House in public has kept him mostly out of the cross hairs in Trump’s tweets. But his aversion to lavishing praise on Trump publicly the way other Cabinet members have has not gone unnoticed.

“Mattis is certainly operating on the less-is-more strategy when it comes to the White House,” said Derek Chollet, a former senior official in the Obama administration who worked with Mattis. “It’s not surprising that to some extent he is losing altitude.”

All of this suggests that Trump may be considering getting rid of Mattis after the midterms, but it’s worth noting that he could pay a political cost for a move such as that. For one thing, Mattis is highly respected by the troops that served under him as well as the large civilian workforce at the Pentagon. Getting rid of him and replacing him with a Trump toady is likely to further fray the relationship between the White House and the Defense Department. Mattis also enjoys widespread support from a wide range of groups, including Democrats, so-called “establishment” Republicans, moderate Republicans, and America’s most important allies around the globe. Removing and replacing Mattis could end up hurting Trump’s relationship with all of these groups, which is hardly what he needs heading into what is likely to be a tough fight for re-election. Despite all of that, this is a President who, to a degree unseen in any of his recent predecessors, demands loyalty from those working under him and Mattis is a man who has made it clear that his loyalty is to the troops, the department he heads, and the country, not to the political fortunes and personal quirks of the man behind the Resolute Desk.

For those of you who are thinking that this all sounds very familiar. Long before they were unceremoniously fired from their positions there were similar reports about friction between the President and officials such as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. In most cases, these reports came months before the person(s) in question actually left the Administration, but in retrospect, it was clear that the ground was being laid for their eventual dismissal. In Tillerson’s case, of course, the departure was largely a good thing since he was widely viewed even by foreign policy analysts who are not Trump supporters as being ineffective in his job. McMaster, on the other hand, entered his position with a fairly good reputation and maintained that reputation throughout the time that he was on the job. Like Mattis, he was seen by outsiders as someone who, thanks in no small part to a military background that the President was deferential to, was able to push back against some of the President’s more quixotic ideas as well as the advice of people around the President who may have been pushing him in a more radical direction. In any case, in both of those cases, the prelude that we seem to be seeing here with regard to Mattis was eventually followed by dismissal. That doesn’t bode well for the future of one of the few people in the Trump Administration who seems to know what he’s doing and is willing to put the country ahead of political considerations and loyalty to an incredibly narcissistic President.

For the moment, the President and the Secretary of Defense are maintaining a veneer of comity, but the tension between the two is obvious even in pictures. Will that tension mean the end of Mattis’s tenure before the end of the year? Only time will tell.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Military Affairs, National Security, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Of course the prevailing notion that Mattis is an adult and Trump a tantrum-throwing toddler is going to make Trump crazed. Trump became disenchanted with Bannon when various commentators and Saturday Night Live portrayed Bannon as Trump’s puppetmaster.

    Deep down, Trump knows–or is uneasily suspicious–that every negative thing that’s said about him is true.

    9
    1
  2. Franklin says:

    Despite being in the Administration, it doesn’t particularly sound like Mattis is enabling Trump. So he may still retain his principled reputation when the history books are written.

    Others, not so much.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    paint a portrait of a president who has soured on his defense secretary, weary of unfavorable comparisons to Mr. Mattis as the adult in the room, and increasingly concerned that he is a Democrat at heart.

    I find it interesting that trump equates adults with Democrats. Finally something he and I can agree on.

    4
    1
  4. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I think in this case, Trump would equate Mattis being a Democrat with Mattis being a traitor.
    Trump described Gary Cohn as a traitor when Cohn attempted to resign in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

    The only definition of traitor Trump acknowledges is that of someone who doesn’t grovel to Trump. The word has no meaning for him otherwise.

  5. Kathy says:

    Let’s state things plainly: Mattis is loyal to his country, El Cheeto is not.

    Oh, and good luck, Sr. Cheeto, finding a replacement who’s neither corrupt nor a criminal, the way many of your lackeys are.

  6. CSK says:

    @Kathy:

    What sane, self-respecting, competent individual would, at this point, take a job in the Trump administration? I understand that Mattis and some of the others might have thought they could exercise some control over Trump initially, and probably they have. But we’re a year and a half in now, and Trump is more resistant than ever to being controlled. Remember that the first and only qualification for Trump is total, absolute, and unquestioning loyalty. Nothing else–not knowledge, experience, intelligence, ability–comes even close.

  7. Hal_10000 says:

    With the caveat that these rumors are always swirling, it would be a great pity if it happened. Mattis is one of the few people who can both restrain Trump and still has his respect. He’s one of the biggest things standing between Trump and the reinstitution of torture.

    This can get a lot worse. And if Mattis is ousted, it will.

  8. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    What sane, self-respecting, competent individual would, at this point, take a job in the Trump administration?

    Would-be self-aggrandizing heroes like Anonymous. Aspiring authors looking for material for a tell-all book. War enthusiasts selling easy military solutions.

  9. CSK says:

    @Kathy:

    Yes, but are those people you cite sane, self-respecting, and competent, or are they just opportunistic cheeseballs?

  10. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    Not mutually exclusive.

    A person can be sane, self-respecting, competent, and a grade-A effing jerk.

  11. steve says:

    The amount of groveling Trump requires is incredible. I happen to consider my immediate superior both a friend and one of the best natural leaders with whom I have ever worked. If I had to say that out loud in every group gathering that we have I would quit in an instant. The ability and willingness to just so completely suck up and kiss ass demonstrates, I think, the difference between the real career politicians and the rest of us. In order to obtain or keep a position, the politicians will lower themselves to almost anything. The rest of us have limits and just can’t do that. (Reminds me of the old joke about why the NIH switched from rats to lawyers for conducting lab experiments.)

    Steve

  12. MBunge says:

    Well, at least this story didn’t come out just hours after Mataconis’ post, unlike a few times in the past on other issues.

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Tuesday dismissed recent news reports that tensions between him and President Donald Trump point to his exit soon.

    Asked by a reporter whether such reports should be taken seriously, he replied, “No. I wouldn’t take it seriously at all. It’s like most of those kind of things in this town” that he said are fanned by baseless rumor.

    “Somebody cooks up a headline. They then call to a normally chatty class of people, they find a couple of other things to put in, they add the rumor, somebody else on the other coast starts writing the same thing — next thing you know you’ve got a story,” he told a small group of reporters on the steps of the Pentagon as he awaited the arrival of his Philippine counterpart.

    Mike