Defense Secretary Mattis Quietly Survives Trump’s Purges with Mixed Record

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Every industry loves its insider baseball. Politics is no exception.

The Trump administration has been catnip for Washingtonians who relish the “Game of Thrones” plot twists that play out on a daily basis. What will Trump do, or tweet, next? Who will be fired? Who will make the cut in the seemingly relentless D.C. version of “The Apprentice?”

Amid the daily drama stands Secretary of Defense James Mattis, President Trump’s stalwart, quiet soldier.

The seasoned military careerist, who was the head of U.S. Central Command during the Obama administration, has managed to hold onto his job in an administration plagued by the highest turnover rate in modern White House history.

There are two nicknames for Mattis: “Warrior Monk” and “Mad Dog.” He earned the former by being an insatiable student of war and remaining unmarried. He earned the latter by being, as Trump so enthusiastically called him, a “killer” on the battlefield. Mattis supposedly prefers to be known as a “Warrior Monk” than “Mad Dog.” Being a “killer” may have gotten him into the administration, but being a cool and levelheaded intellectual is helping him stay there.

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How much longer he stays, however, is another matter. The president is reportedly frustrated by what he sees as his defense secretary slow-walking many of his proposed initiatives, such as banning transgender troops from openly serving in the military. Speculation is also rife about how much influence Mattis wields in a revolving-door Cabinet, particularly with the addition of prominent hawks such as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, who has taken the reins of the North Korea portfolio as secretary of state.

The rumors are nothing new. From the beginning, observers wondered whether the retired four-star Marine general would mesh with his boss, given how different the two men are in temperament and experience.

Whereas Trump made billions as a real estate magnate and reality television star, Mattis steadily moved up the ranks of the military over four decades, becoming a battle-hardened veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whereas Trump avidly consumes TV headlines minute by minute, Mattis reportedly has a personal library of over 6,000 books.

Beyond their personal and professional differences, Mattis and Trump diverge on key policy issues, including NATO, Russia, Syria, Afghanistan, the value of diplomacy and alliances, how to run the Pentagon and America’s role in the world.

But Mattis has been deft at downplaying his disagreements with Trump while studiously working behind the scenes to blunt the edges of his boss’s harsh rhetoric.

Mattis must be both military man and diplomat, especially when it comes to NATO, an area where he has demonstrated skill in maneuvering to preserve the security bloc without stepping on Trump’s toes. He must often calibrate his actions to counterbalance Trump’s public denunciations, laying a soothing hand on traditional allies’ shoulders after his boss lashes out at them, while also guarding against the re-emergence America’s old adversary Russia after the president welcomes Vladimir Putin with open arms.

In some areas, Mattis’s head-down, deliberative approach has succeeded; in others, the internationalist scholar has failed to sway a president who won office on an isolationist America First platform.

Mattis has for the most part reassured nervous NATO allies that the U.S. remains committed to their defense. The picture is more mixed with Russia, which Mattis sees as a long-term threat. On the one hand, the administration has agreed to an array of sanctions against the Kremlin; on the other, the president is often reluctant to concede that the Kremlin is responsible for the transgressions behind those sanctions, most notably election meddling.

Trump also reluctantly agreed to Mattis’s advice to send several thousand U.S. troops to Syria and Afghanistan, a huge concession given the president’s disdain for foreign entanglements. It’s a concession that could easily be taken back. In April, Trump abruptly announced he would withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as soon as possible, taking military leaders by surprise. But a few weeks later, Mattis quietly reversed course, saying the U.S. was in it for the long haul in Afghanistan, where Americans are training local forces to fight the Taliban, and in Syria, where the Pentagon wants to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State and curb Iran’s rising influence.

It wasn’t the first time Trump has caught Pentagon leaders off guard. After the president’s meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Trump announced a suspension of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, which the Pentagon considers vital to maintaining readiness on the volatile Korean Peninsula. According to a June 25 NBC report, Mattis was blindsided by the move. Nevertheless, Mattis dutifully defended the decision, saying it increased room for diplomats to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Ironically, when Mattis served under Obama, many Democrats pegged him as a warmonger for his hawkish views on Iran and Islamic extremism. Today, many of those same Democrats see Mattis as their best hope to pacify Trump’s combative instincts.

Despite his qualms about the Iran nuclear agreement, for instance, Mattis argued — to no avail — that it was better for the U.S. to remain in the agreement than to abandon it altogether. He also differed with his boss on withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, cutting the State Department’s budget, imposing tariffs on allies and creating a so-called Space Force branch within the military.

Trump’s supporters say these disagreements are a normal part of policymaking and reflect the fact that while the president takes his defense secretary’s opinions into account, he ultimately makes his own decisions as commander in chief.

Trump’s critics, however, have called Mattis one of the “grown-ups” in the room who keeps the president’s whims in check. Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster used to be among those “grown-ups,” but he, like former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, got on the wrong side of the boss and were axed, depriving Mattis of two close allies in the administration.

One of the reasons Mattis has retained his job could simply be that he refrained from calling the president an “idiot” with the intelligence of a “kindergartner,” as McMaster reportedly did when Trump wasn’t around, or a “moron,” as Tillerson did, also when Trump wasn’t around. In a typical office, such remarks might be normal water-cooler venting. But in administration where private gossip is routinely leaked and the boss is notoriously thin-skinned, Tillerson and McMaster’s days were numbered. It didn’t help that neither seemed to ever develop a genuine rapport with the president.

Maybe Mattis learned a lesson from Tillerson and McMaster’s missteps, or perhaps he is more self-disciplined and patient, keeping his venting contained to an ironclad few and adapting to his boss’s temperament and sensitivities.

“I’m not paid for my feelings. I save those for my girlfriend,” Mattis said at a press conference in February.

He was referring to his feelings about Trump’s idea to stage a grand military parade in Washington, D.C., a display critics say would be a waste of money. Trump was eager to move ahead with the parade until he found out the cost would be nearly $100 million (inaccurately pinning the blame for the price tag on local city officials).

But the parade flap is merely a sideshow to the meatier issues Mattis confronts, namely reassuring allies while repelling adversaries. So far, he has handled NATO with skill and is treading carefully with Russia while overseeing a larger defense budget.

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NATO’s Protector

Mattis and Trump have sharply differing perspectives on NATO. The secretary of defense has maintained a low profile, as usual, while trying to assuage fears that Trump will irrevocably weaken the 69-year-old alliance.

Trump has repeatedly derided NATO member states for not spending enough on defense and only begrudgingly committed to the bloc’s Article 5 collective defense clause that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

Mattis, who headed NATO’s Supreme Allied Command for Transformation from 2007 to 2009, is a strong supporter of NATO. “History is clear,” Mattis said at his Senate confirmation hearing. “Nations with strong allies thrive, and those without them wither.”

But instead of publicly contradicting his boss, Mattis has gone to work quietly shoring up America’s participation in the alliance.

According to a May 29, 2017, report in The New Yorker titled “James Mattis, A Warrior in Washington,” Dexter Filkins wrote that Mattis was put to the test early on after Trump’s condemnation of NATO as “obsolete” rattled allies.

Filkins wrote that German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen immediately called Mattis after Trump’s inauguration. “He managed to distance himself from everything President Trump had said without appearing disloyal,” von der Leyen told Filkins.

“When Mattis arrived in Brussels a few weeks later for a NATO gathering, he implored U.S. allies to spend more on defense — but he never threatened to pull out of the alliance if they didn’t,” Filkins wrote, noting that one former defense official told him that Mattis is “walking a very fine line.”

While that line is getting tighter and tighter, Mattis has notched several significant achievements under his belt. Among other things, he has shepherded through additional funding to improve Europe’s deterrence capabilities and fortify its eastern flank in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its muscle-flexing in the region.

More recently, at the NATO summit in July, senior national security officials pressed ambassadors to finish a formal policy agreement before the summit began in an effort to prevent Trump from scuttling it, according to an Aug. 9 New York Times article by Helene Cooper and Julian E. Barnes.

The article said Mattis, Bolton and Pompeo were all keen to avoid the kind of breakdown that occurred at the contentious G7 summit a month earlier, when Trump refused to sign the final communiqué. 

“Described by European diplomats and American officials, the efforts are a sign of the lengths to which the president’s top advisers will go to protect a key and longstanding international alliance from Mr. Trump’s unpredictable antipathy,” they wrote, noting that the communiqué ensured that allies “could push through initiatives, including critical Pentagon priorities to improve allied defenses against Russia.”

That includes formally inviting Macedonia to join the alliance and a pledge to support the “30-30-30-30” agreement spearheaded by Mattis. That plan would require 30 land battalions, 30 air fighter squadrons and 30 warships ready to deploy within 30 days.

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Threats to our collective security have not waned, whether terrorism to the south or Russia’s aggression and hybrid threats to the east,” Mattis said in a press conference in June at the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels. He told reporters that the alliance “has made significant progress” on burden sharing in the last year.

Like Trump (and Obama), Mattis wants other NATO countries to increase their spending on collective security, although he has relied on praise and pressure over outright threats to persuade allies to shoulder more responsibility.

On the burden sharing, in 2014, it was a watershed year in NATO, when only three nations’ military spending was at 2 percent of GDP,” Mattis said. “By 2017, all nations had reversed the downward trend … in defense spending, and last year we also saw the largest across-NATO increase in military spending in a quarter century.

“Now, in 2018, eight nations are already meeting the 2 percent pledge benchmark, and I salute the 15 allies who are on track to reach 2 percent by 2024,” he added.

Mattis wrapped up his press conference by asserting that the U.S. is committed to the NATO alliance that, for nearly 70 years, “has served to uphold the values and the principles on which our democracies were founded.”

The Russia Threat

NATO was formed in 1949 to stave off aggression by the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, NATO redefined itself to stay relevant, with members banning together to, for instance, fight terrorism in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks (the only time, incidentally, that Article 5 has ever been invoked).

Today, Cold War-era tensions are back, as a resurgent Russia threatens European nations from the Baltics to the Balkans with everything from airspace incursions to fake news. In some ways, Russia is also a dire threat to the administration, which is fending off charges of collusion that could, in theory, lead to Trump’s impeachment.

Yet the president has remained steadfast in his belief that the U.S. could partner with Vladimir Putin to cooperate on areas such as Syria. Still, it’s hard for anyone to get a read on Trump’s Russia strategy.

Trump is loath to admit that Russia meddled in the U.S. election despite overwhelming evidence by his own intelligence agencies that it did. At the same time, Trump kicked out (albeit reluctantly) 60 Russian diplomats and closed a consulate in response to Moscow’s alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil. He also agreed to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine to fight Russian-backed separatists in the east (a move supported by the Pentagon), and his administration has imposed a slew of tough sanctions against the Kremlin (albeit largely under pressure from Congress).

The Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki, which followed the NATO summit in Brussels, further muddied the waters. Only translators were present with Trump during his two-hour sit-down with Putin, so no high-level officials know exactly what transpired during the tête-à-tête. Critics argue that Mattis should have been in the room because of all the Russia-related national security issues involved, from cyber hacks to nuclear weapons. The meeting supposedly resulted in agreements, but no details have surfaced.

Mattis has long been clear that he views Russia as a geopolitical threat. Weeks before the Helsinki meeting, he warned that Putin seeks to “undermine America’s moral authority” and “shatter NATO.”

“For the first time since World War II, Russia has been the nation that has redrawn international borders by force in Georgia and Ukraine while pursuing veto authority over their neighbors’ diplomatic, economic and security decisions,” he said.

Trump, however, stunned allies with his deferential appearance next to Putin in Helsinki, where he sided with the Russian leader over his intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the Kremlin interfered in the U.S. election. The controversial performance came just days after Trump blasted NATO allies such as Germany for being “captive” to Russia.

Once again, Mattis found himself in the role of peacemaker, putting a positive spin on the Helsinki meeting when asked by reporters whether the U.S. should hold more direct talks with the Russians.

“It’s essential that leaders talk with one another,” Mattis said. “It’s most important that we talk with those countries that we have the largest disagreements with. I mean that’s how you repair those disagreements… I’ve always said diplomacy leads our foreign policy. This is diplomacy in action.”

Mattis has been remarkably successful in maintaining linkages with the allies despite skepticism by the White House,” said Mark Cancian, who served with Mattis in Iraq and is currently a senior adviser in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “For example, U.S. efforts in Eastern Europe, called the European Deterrence Initiative, have increased to $6.5 billion in the FY 2019 budget, even though there has been great concern about the level of contributions by the Europeans.”

NATO allies have put their trust in Mattis despite worries not only over Trump’s embrace of Putin, but also his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and imposition of tariffs on European Union member states. But concerns are mounting that Mattis is not a strong enough voice in Trump’s ear, according to a July 9 Reuters article by Phil Stewart and Robin Emmott.

But the biggest fear of all: a potential Mattis departure.

a1.mattis.defense.press.story“In an administration that has seen a high degree of turnover, former NATO official Alexander Vershbow said some of his European contacts ask him from time to time about the possibility that Mattis might leave the job,” Stewart and Emmott wrote. “That’s the nightmare scenario for the Europeans, that Mattis could depart,” Vershbow told Reuters.

Report Card

Many experts say Mattis has fared well in an exceedingly difficult position. The blunt-talking but generally press-averse Marine still appears to have the respect of the president, and if he disagrees with Trump’s calls, he refrains from commenting on it in public.

There has been speculation that Mattis has fallen out of favor with Trump and is no longer in his inner circle. That is debatable, said Jim Townsend, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy and currently an adjunct senior fellow in the Center for a New American Security’s Transatlantic Security Program.

I don’t think Mattis was ever in Trump’s inner circle. That’s a pretty exclusive and eclectic group,” he said. “But there have been stories that Trump is relying more on his own instinct and close circle of friends and less on experts/professionals, including Mattis. But that has quieted down. I don’t think military issues are a top priority or interest for Trump, except as political props.

“As long as Mattis keeps his head down and remains totally focused on the U.S. military and its mission, which is what he does so well, he will stay out of Trump’s crosshairs,” Townsend said.

Townsend, who worked for more than two decades on European and NATO policy at the Pentagon, said Mattis’s major accomplishments as defense secretary to date include keeping the transatlantic defense community together, both bilaterally and at NATO, while also being tough with allies to increase defense spending.”

On the domestic side, Cancian of CSIS said one of Mattis’s greatest accomplishments is increasing the defense budget. “After 2014, with the Russian annexation of the Crimea, the surge of ISIS [Islamic State] and continued Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, a large gap had opened between DoD’s resources and its strategy. The defense budget needed to increase in order to close this gap. Although there was a bipartisan consensus about this, Mattis, working with the White House, was able to get a budget agreement that provided increased resources at a level that was higher than most experts expected would be achievable,” Cancian said.

The defense budget got a boost this year with the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, which raises the caps on both defense and nondefense spending in fiscal 2018 and 2019. The result: one of the biggest defense budgets in modern U.S. history.

On Aug. 13, Trump signed the 2019 defense bill, which authorizes $716 in top-line spending, including $639 billion for the Pentagon’s base budget and $69 billion for overseas contingency operations funding.

“The National Defense Authorization Act is the most significant investment in our military and our war fighters in modern history,” Trump declared in front of a U.S. Army Apache helicopter. “We are going to strengthen our military like never ever before and that’s what we did.”

Among other things, the bill gives troops a pay raise and authorizes money for 77 F-35 fighter jets and 13 new warships. The defense bill also reinforces the position held by Mattis and many national security leaders: that the U.S. needs to treat Russia as a great-power competitor (although Trump notably objected to several Russia-related provisions that could handcuff his ability to cooperate with Moscow on issues such as Crimea).

But details of specific spending priorities still have to be ironed out by Congress — and that’s exactly where Mattis the “Warrior Monk,” not the “Mad Dog,” will likely play his usual behind-the-scenes role to shape the country’s national security policies.


About the Author

Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on August 31, 2018