What he says at the beginning about having had his own issues with the press made me smile, thinking back years ago to when the media considered Mattis a loose cannon due to the colorful bluntness of his “Mattisms.” Fast-forward seven years and he’s now viewed as the most formidable bulwark inside the cabinet against the loose cannon in the White House. Here’s a perfect illustration, as he’s asked about Trump calling the media an “enemy of the American people” on Friday and politely disagrees. Politico described his recent foreign trips to visit American allies as “reassurance tours,” trying to ease their fears that the Trump era will bring a bold reorientation in U.S. policy. (It’ll bring some reorientation but maybe not a major one.) It occurs to me that he’s playing the same role with the media in answering this question. This may end up being his key public role as SecDef, notwithstanding the “Mad Dog” nickname: He’s the calmer-in-chief.
So I guess the plan is just to send Pence and Mattis around the world for 4 years telling people to ignore what Trump says?
— Will Jordan (@williamjordann) February 20, 2017
Watching this also makes me wonder how long Mattis’s leash is from the White House, specifically whether he might get away with undermining Trump in ways that other cabinet officials would be chastised for. Unless I’m mistaken, Mattis is the only cabinet member thus far whom Trump has admitted he’ll defer to on a specific policy (waterboarding). Because Mattis is worshipped by the Marines, he also enjoys a military credibility that Trump may be reluctant to challenge. And between his decades of service and his renown as an intellectual who’s read widely in history, there may be no member of the new cabinet who brings as much civic legitimacy to the White House as Mattis does. All of which, put together, may mean that he gets special privileges to disagree with Trump on populist grandstanding about, say, the media or seizing Iraq’s oil — but which doesn’t mean that he gets his way on all things. On the contrary:
Mattis, Tillerson and Pompeo continue to butt heads with the White House over personnel decisions, fighting to pick their own staffs against an administration that has rewarded campaign staff with government positions and remains wary of establishment figures. According to a source close to the CIA director, Pompeo is not happy that Trump, frustrated by leaks from the intelligence community, floated the idea of appointing a hedge funder and political supporter, Stephen Feinberg, to investigate his agency…
As Tillerson and Mattis have tried to staff their respective departments, they have faced resistance from the White House and reluctance from many potential top appointees who are ambivalent about joining this chaotic administration. Vice Admiral Robert Harward, Mattis’ former CENTCOM deputy and a preferred choice to replace Michael Mike Flynn, who resigned his post as national security adviser Monday night, turned the job down Thursday in part over concerns about whether he would have authority over policy and his own staff hiring.
If Mattis had special influence with Trump, you would have expected the president to bend on Harward’s demands to staff his own NSC. Instead, reportedly, Trump made KT McFarland’s continued role in the administration non-negotiable. Mattis himself has a deputy at the Pentagon right now, in fact, only because he held one over from the Obama administration. On the other hand, this memorable detail from Politico’s story about Mattis’s antipathy to Flynn makes me wonder if that was a contributing factor in the White House pushing Flynn out. If a situation was developing in which Trump would eventually have to choose between Flynn and Mattis, maybe Team Trump made its choice early:
When Mattis met with Republican senators in January ahead of his confirmation hearings, Republican senators simply thanked him for his willingness to serve the incoming administration. His own confirmation assured, Mattis asked the senators to help Tillerson, whose nomination appeared less certain and who he thought might be an important ally in the Cabinet.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to get Rex [Tillerson] over the finish line for me,” one GOP senate staffer recalled, “because Flynn is crazy.”
Flynn being replaced by a Mattis protege like Harward would have cemented Mattis’s stature as a cabinet member of unusual influence — and Trump did reportedly offer the job to Harward. It didn’t work out, but that’s another data point for the argument that Mattis is first among equals outside Trump’s White House inner circle.
Two clips for you here, one of Mattis discussing the media and what Gen. Tony Thomas said recently about the administration being in “disarray” (note that Mattis doesn’t disagree with that characterization for the government writ large, only with respect to the military) followed by Reince Priebus, by contrast, attempting to defend Trump’s “enemy of the people” comment. One way to distinguish those two reactions is to say that only one of them is a political officer, and political officers have a stronger duty to defend their boss’s political pronouncements. Another way to distinguish, given the rumors swirling lately, is that only one of these two is in any fear for his job.