The Daily 202: James Mattis emerges as the most un-Trumpian member of the cabinet
The big idea: James Mattis, on a tour across Asia designed to reassure allies who are panicked about President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, was asked several hours after Saturday’s terrorist attack on the London Bridge whether he had any reaction.
“I need to confirm everything. I like learning about something before I talk. So let me look into it,” the secretary of defense told a gaggle of American reporters who are traveling with him.
By the time Mattis said that, Trump had already impulsively spouted off several times – retweeting an unconfirmed post from the Drudge Report before British authorities even confirmed the incident was terrorism and then reiterating calls for his travel ban before anything was known about the suspects. Only later did he get around to extending condolences and offering U.S. support.
While undoubtedly unintentional, Mattis declining to comment the way he did represented quite a burn of the president.
It was perhaps the smallest, but most telling, illustration from the past 72 hours of the significant stylistic and substantive contrasts between the secretary of defense and the commander-in-chief.
Speaking in Sydney a few hours ago, Mattis finally responded to what happened in London. “We are united in our resolve, even against an enemy that thinks by hurting us they can scare us,” he declared. “Well, we don't scare!”
Compare this mindset to Trump’s alarmist messaging yesterday. The president and one of his senior aides basically attacked London’s mayor — Sadiq Khan, a liberal Muslim — for not protecting his citizens:
“Trump took Khan’s quote out of context,” White House bureau chief Phil Rucker notes. “The mayor had urged Londoners, in a BBC interview that was replayed, not to be ‘alarmed’ by an increased police presence in the city. He said that after condemning the ‘deliberate and cowardly attack’ as ‘barbaric.’”
-- Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris agreement underscored another difference. Mattis has acknowledged climate change is happening and argued passionately that the federal government must respond. “The issue is considered especially important in Asia, where the Pacific Ocean dominates life, violent storms are common and several megacities are along coastlines,” reports Pentagon correspondent Dan Lamothe, who is flying aboard Mattis’s plane this week. “The Pentagon has labeled climate change as a threat to national security for years, and Mattis testified in January during his confirmation process that it required a ‘broader, whole-of-government response.’ He was not among the Cabinet secretaries whose comments the White House released Thursday in support of Trump’s decision” to withdraw from the Paris deal.
-- In Singapore, after delivering a speech at the Shangri-La defense summit, Mattis signaled strongly that the U.S. will eventually break its isolationist fever. Michael Fullilove of the Lowy Institute in Australia, asked about Trump withdrawing from both the Paris agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as well as his criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Mattis replied that “there will be fresh approaches taken” because “we have a new president.” But then he made an impassioned case that the United States will always remain an international leader because Americans accept that, “like it or not, we are part of the world.”
He said Americans learned about the dangers of isolationism after World War II. America was happy “between our two oceans,” he said, until realizing “what a crummy world if we all retreat inside our own borders.”
Then he paraphrased an old quote often attributed to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. “To quote a British observer of us from some years ago: Bear with us. Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing. So, we will still be there. And we will be with you,” Mattis said, per Dan.
-- “Perhaps no member of the Trump administration has as much worldwide credibility as … Mattis. But deep down the room did not believe him,” writes The Economist’s David Rennie, who is also accompanying the secretary on the trip. “There was something almost heartbreaking about the questions posed by the audience to the defence secretary … A member of the Japanese parliament wondered aloud whether America still shares ‘common values’ with its allies, or just security interests…
“Mattis is a distinguished man in an unenviable position,” David explains. “The defence secretary is not a dissident within the Trump administration. He is a loyal servant of a democratically-elected president. But in his defence of the post-war order, he was trying to tell his Asian audience that some principles and instincts are so deeply rooted in the American spirit that they can survive the swings and counter-swings of electoral politics.”
-- The swashbuckling 66-year-old, who served four decades in the Marines before retiring as a four-star general, is beloved by rank-and-file servicemen for his valor in combat and his blunt style. “The Warrior Monk,” a more fitting nickname than the “Mad Dog” moniker preferred by Trump, is also respected by elites as a well-read intellectual and strategic thinker. Even Democratic alumni of the Obama administration who found him frustratingly hawkish praise Mattis for his honesty and integrity.
Mattis stepped down as head of U.S. Central Command in 2013 after disagreements with Obama’s White House over his desire to intensify the military response to Iranian activities in the Middle East. But, in his new job, he’s defended the nuclear deal with Iran. “It is in an imperfect arms control agreement,” Mattis said in January. “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.” Can you imagine Trump saying that?
-- Mattis is in Australia today with Rex Tillerson, trying to shore up one of the most special relationships we have. The secretaries of defense and state are going to have dinner with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the next few hours. Recall that Trump abruptly ended a testy phone call with Turnbull a few days after taking office after badgering him about a refugee deal and bragging about his electoral college win.
-- While there is typically tension between the guys who run Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon, Mattis has worked hard to cultivate a close relationship with Tillerson. That’s because the SecDef, who has experienced the scars of battle and the loss of men under his command, believes in using force as a last resort – or at least after exhausting other options. “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately,” Mattis testified in 2013. “The more that we put into the State Department’s diplomacy, hopefully the less we have to put into a military budget.” Clearly, the president feels differently. Trump’s budget proposes slashing the State Department’s budget by more than 25 percent.
-- Trump has cited Mattis as the reason he backed away from his campaign pledge to reinstate waterboarding. “He said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’” Trump told the New York Times. Mattis explained to the president-elect during his job interview that he always found more value in building trust and rewarding cooperation with terrorism suspects than torturing them. “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better,” the retired general said. “I was very impressed by that answer,” Trump recalled later.
-- The biggest difference between Trump and Mattis, though, is probably on Russia. At his confirmation hearing in January, Mattis placed Russia first among principal threats facing the United States.
On May 10, he flew to Lithuania to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to NATO. “We will deploy whatever capability is necessary here,” Mattis told leaders of the Baltic States, where he visited U.S. troops massing near the border with Russia and heard from a German colonel about Moscow’s latest subterfuge.
Two weeks later, Trump scolded NATO leaders in Brussels. Instead of embracing the organization’s solemn treaty commitment that an attack on a single alliance nation is an attack on all of them, he lectured about how most members are not paying their fair share – using inaccurate and misleading numbers.
Mattis was not just disappointed but also caught by surprise when Trump did not reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Article 5 mutual defense. Politico’s Susan Glasser reports this morning that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Mattis and Tillerson all supported Trump doing so and had worked hard in the weeks leading up to the trip to make sure it was included in the speech: “They thought it was, and a White House aide even told the New York Times the day before the line was definitely included. It was not until … when Trump started talking … that the president’s national security team realized their boss had made a decision with major consequences – without consulting or even informing them in advance of the change.”
“All of which further confirms a level of White House dysfunction that veterans of both parties I’ve talked with in recent months say is beyond anything they can recall,” Susan writes in a column about the episode. “And it suggests Trump’s impulsive instincts on foreign policy are not necessarily going to be contained by the team of experienced leaders he’s hired.”
“As with so much about this administration, there is a parallel to the Watergate era,” Daniel Kurtz-Phelan writes for New York Magazine. “With Nixon increasingly prone to boozy, paranoid rages, top officials concluded that he should sometimes be taken neither literally nor seriously. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger told officers to get a second opinion before carrying out presidential orders. … This time around, it falls to Mattis … to check apocalyptic impulses emanating from the Oval Office.”
-- “Mattis could well turn out to be a brake on Trump’s impulsive tendencies. But it’s also possible that, with the President uninterested in many details of international affairs, the military will also lack restraint,” Dexter Filkins worries in a good profile of the secretary for last week’s New Yorker. “In the weeks after the Yemen raid, it launched a series of operations on a scale rarely seen in the Obama years. It stepped up air strikes in Iraq and Syria, killing many Islamic militants but also hundreds of civilians. In Afghanistan, the Air Force dropped a bomb weighing twenty-two thousand pounds—the largest conventional weapon ever used—on an ISIS bunker complex. The Navy fired fifty-nine cruise missiles at an airbase in Syria, meant to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons. An aircraft-carrier battle group was sent to the waters off the Korean Peninsula, in an effort to persuade the North Korean government to scale back its nuclear ambitions. And the decision was made to arm Syrian Kurds against the Islamic State.”
For now, Mattis is still struggling to staff up. The fact that Trump is in the White House has made that much harder: “Four months after he took over the Pentagon, only two of the top civilian jobs—there are fifty-seven in all—have been filled,” Dexter writes. “While Mattis was inclined to bring in people from across the political spectrum, the Trump White House was determined to appoint loyalists. In practice, that excluded nearly all the main-line Republican national-security experts, dozens of whom had signed letters during the campaign declaring that Trump was unqualified for office…
“When Mattis asked Michèle Flournoy, the former Under-Secretary of Defense under Obama, to consider becoming his deputy, she was torn between her admiration for Mattis and her discomfort with the Trump Administration. ‘I lost a lot of sleep and felt sick to my stomach,’ she told me. At Trump Tower, she was interviewed by a group of aides with no national-security experience. Among their first questions was ‘What would it take for you to resign?’ Flournoy, alarmed, told Mattis that she couldn’t take the job.”