Mattis Out in the Cold?

A thinly-sourced report says Yes.

NBC News (“Mattis is out of the loop and Trump doesn’t listen to him, say officials“):

Defense Secretary James Mattis learned in May from a colleague that President Donald Trump had made the decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, and scrambled to get his boss on the phone before a formal announcement was made. It wouldn’t be the last time he was caught off guard by a presidential announcement.

A month later, Mattis was informed that Trump had ordered a pause in U.S. military exercises with South Korea only after the president had already promised the concession to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Last week, Trump again blindsided and overruled his defense secretary by publicly directing the Pentagon to create a sixth military branch overseeing operations in space.

The way these recent presidential decisions on major national security issues have played out, as detailed by current and former White House and defense officials, underscores a significant change in Mattis’s role in recent months. The president is relying less and less on the advice of one of the longest-serving members of his cabinet, the officials said.

“They don’t really see eye to eye,” said a former senior White House official who has closely observed the relationship.

It’s a stark contrast to Trump’s early enthusiasm for the retired four-star Marine general he proudly referred to as “Mad Dog.” And while the two men had disagreements from the start — on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects, for instance — Trump still kept Mattis in the loop on major decisions and heeded his counsel.

“He’s never been one of the go-tos in the gang that’s very close to the president,” a senior White House official said. “But the president has a lot of respect for him.”

In recent months, however, the president has cooled on Mattis, in part because he’s come to believe his defense secretary looks down on him and slow-walks his policy directives, according to current and former administration officials.

The dynamic was exacerbated with Trump’s announcement in March that he had chosen John Bolton as national security adviser, a move Mattis opposed, and Mike Pompeo’s confirmation as secretary of state soon after.

The president is now more inclined to rely on his own instincts or the advice of Pompeo and Bolton, three people familiar with the matter said.

One defense official said there is no indication Trump is unhappy with Mattis, just that he is not in the inner decision-making circle anymore. The official said Mattis does not contradict the president publicly or in the media and does not draw the president’s ire.

This certainly rings true. As he has gotten more comfortable in office and perhaps more frustrated with the intransigence of the system, Trump has been winging it even more. Trump wants big changes, now, and career professionals like Mattis, who understand how things actually work, aren’t telling him what he wants to hear.

Still, the report is based on some incredibly vague sourcing. What constitutes a “senior White House official”? What is his/her agenda? Who are these three people “familiar with the matter”? What’s their agenda?

Naturally, the administration is denying the report:

Asked for comment on NBC’s reporting, chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said, “This is pure silliness.”

On behalf of the White House, National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said, “For an unnamed expert to claim a department is not in the loop is ludicrous.”

That’s immediately followed by this:

Mattis has influenced some key decisions. He was among the advisers last summer who convinced Trump to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He kept Trump from ditching the Iran nuclear deal for more than a year after taking office. This past April, when Trump wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Mattis convinced him to agree — reluctantly — to keep them there to finish the fight against ISIS.

That’s some strange pairing. That Mattis was influential a year ago doesn’t have any bearing on whether he’s influential now; it should be used as a contrast point. Conversely, if by “This past April” the report means “In April,” then Mattis was in fact very influential on a key policy matter quite recently.

The rest of the report is a rehashing and modest expansion of the first few paragraphs.

To the extent the report is true, it’s not great news. While the whole “Axis of Adults” concept was always overblown (particularly since Rex Tillerson, arguably the worst Secretary of State in modern history, was included in their number) Mattis was, in fact, one of the few outsiders (i.e., not a Trump loyalist from the campaign or earlier) with significant influence.

That the Commander-in-Chief overruled his Secretary of Defense on the creation of a Space Force, something that will require an Act of Congress, anyway, is well within his prerogative. Ditto pulling out of the Iran deal without telling him first; that’s really more in Pompeo’s bailiwick. Making a radical change in our posture on the Korean peninsula is much more concerning but, alas, that’s just Trump being Trump: he thinks he’s a better dealmaker than anyone who works for him and acts impulsively.

This one is certainly worth keeping an eye on. I’m not sure how much more untethered this President can get. We may find out.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Military Affairs, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Facebones says:

    Come on, the only reason Trump picked Mattis for SecDef was his cool nickname. I’ll bet that his influence waned as soon as Trump found out he wasn’t really a mad dog and instead considered the consequences of his actions before spouting off.

  2. teve tory says:

    In recent months, however, the president has cooled on Mattis, in part because he’s come to believe his defense secretary looks down on him and slow-walks his policy directives, according to current and former administration officials.

    America owes Mattis a debt of gratitude for this.

  3. @Facebones:

    It also doesn’t help Mattis that he has clearly not been as obsequious toward Trump as his other advisers. Last year during the televised start of a Cabinet meeting at which Vice-President Pence and the other members of the Cabinet spoke absurdly obsequious praise of Trump and what a privilege it was to work for him Mattis chose to speak about what a privilege it was for him to lead the Dept. of Defense and represent the men and women in uniform, thus making clear without saying so that he was not just another Trump bootlicker.

    10
  4. That the Commander-in-Chief overruled his Secretary of Defense on the creation of a Space Force, something that will require an Act of Congress, anyway, is well within his prerogative. Ditto pulling out of the Iran deal without telling him first; that’s really more in Pompeo’s bailiwick. Making a radical change in our posture on the Korean peninsula is much more concerning but, alas, that’s just Trump being Trump: he thinks he’s a better dealmaker than anyone who works for him and acts impulsively.

    Yes, but the issue isn’t presidential prerogative, it is the degree to which he is taking advice from people who know what they are talking about (and we know where the evidence points on all of that).

    I agree the reports are vague, but they do ring true. And really, going back to the ban on trans people in the military, it has been clear that the president does not consult the Pentagon on these decisions.

    In general (no pun intended), Mattis has seemed somewhat sidelined this entire admin (he has certainly had a very low profile).

  5. CSK says:

    Now why on earth would Trump need Mattis when he has Lewandowski and Miller?

  6. Kathy says:

    When what passes for an administration in this White House denies a report, I take it as confirmation.

    And if the Cheeto of the tiny hands won’t hire or listen to people who loook down on him, he’ll find himself surrounded by ignorant bootlicking yes men without an original thought in their… oh, wait.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Naturally, the administration is denying the report:

    Well, that’s one way of saying of putting it, another would be, “Lying their asses off.”

    The dysfunction inside this admin is well known by now. So is the sycophantic fawning to the point of lying for the boss to cover up his idiocy.

    As to the motives of the leakers, we already know. This admin leaks more than a collander from a multitude of people, mostly involving some form of backstabbing in the service of improving one’s position in the eyes of the boss. The better question is how does sidelining Mattis help Bolton and/or Pompeo? What are their end games?

  8. Lit3Bolt says:

    They’re trying to media-whore and sideline Mattis so that he’s nowhere near Trump and Putin when they engage in a reciprocal treason-love-fest.

    Mattis is dedicated to maintaining NATO, and therefore this Treason Administration sees him as a threat.

    The Heil Trump brigade will be along shortly to cheer the demise of Pax Americana, and smile as their families are sent to die in futile and useless and pointless wars caused by their Orange Jesus.

  9. CSK says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    The NBC report mentions that Trump feels Mattis “looks down on him.” Of course Mattis looks down on Trump. I suspect virtually everyone who works for this buffoon is contemptuous of him. Mattis can’t–or won’t–hide it.

    There’s a piece at TPM today mentioning that Trump fired Manafort as his campaign manager because of Manafort’s demeanor toward him. “You treat me like a baby!” Trump reportedly complained. Well, sure. Trump is a baby. A very large and unusually unattractive one, to be sure, but a baby.

    Melania knows what her husband is. Ivanka knows what her father is. Melania and Ivanka also know which sides of their respective slices of bread have the butter.

  10. CSK says:

    May I be let out of moderation, please?

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Concur all around. I think Trump initially respected Mattis and that he had more influence than any of the non-loyalists in the early going. But that’s not saying much.

    @Kathy: @OzarkHillbilly: I agree that the administration lies a lot renders their denials meaningless. It does not, however, render their denials confirmations.

  12. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    It does not, however, render their denials confirmations.

    Not quite, not. But if what passes for an administration these days were to issue a denial that Martians have landed in New Jersey, I’d check local news sources there to make sure.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Kathy: Right. Liars often tell the truth. But, once you know they’re untrustworthy, there’s no way of knowing when that might be.

  14. MarkedMan says:

    This is part of a very dangerous but inevitable trend: although a few 1st or 2nd rate people joined the administration early on, as they leave they are replaced by 4th and 5th raters. I’ve pointed out in the past that even the fairly competent people in the administration probably grabbed at it because they had personality flaws that had blocked them from top spots (Jeff Sessions’ pathological racism, Kelly’s racism, xenophobia and anger issues). And so even the 4th and 5th raters joining the administration have serious personal problems. Some are wife beaters, many are corrupt, and then there are the real outliers, such as Miller’s toxic and ghoulish depravity.

  15. teve tory says:

    . Some are wife beaters, many are corrupt, and then there are the real outliers, such as Miller’s toxic and ghoulish depravity.

    “I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people”

  16. CSK says:

    @teve tory:

    He also once said that an employer should never hire anyone more intelligent than himself, so it’s hardly surprising he has to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

  17. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Lit3Bolt:

    The Heil Trump brigade will be along shortly to cheer the demise of Pax Americana, and smile as their families are sent to die in futile and useless and pointless wars caused by their Orange Jesus.

    Pfui! You think conservatives are going to send their children to fight in wars? Nonsense! Pure flummery!

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: Worked for an administrator like that at one college I worked at. Got to the point that if she said “nice day outside,” I reflexively looked out of a window.

  19. wr says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Been reading a little Rex Stout lately?

  20. I’m not sure how much more untethered this President can get. We may find out.

    I wake up every day wondering how this guy can be president.

  21. MarkedMan says:

    @wr: Sure, everyone mourns when a word like “literally” literally is destroyed before our eyes, but who mourns the death of words like “flummery”? America was great when we had “Flummery” and “Twaddle” and “Poppycock”! Where are we now? Coincidence?!

  22. teve tory says:

    @CSK: The smartest, most successful businesses focus on hiring the best people. No wonder Trump doesn’t.

  23. wr says:

    @MarkedMan: I wrote something like eight hours of the Maury Chaykin/Timothy Hutton Nero Wolfe series. Great fun — but I’ve had enough of pfui and flummery to last a lifetime!