So much for the “retiring” narrative attempted by Donald Trump yesterday. Sarah Huckabee Sanders reframed the departure of James Mattis as an “honorable” exit over genuine policy disagreements this morning on Fox & Friends. After Mattis released his pointed letter of resignation that accused Trump of ignoring the value of American allies and security partnerships, she had little choice:
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis did the “right thing and honorable thing” by announcing his resignation this week, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday, praising the outgoing Pentagon chief for stepping down over his disagreements with President Donald Trump. …
“At the end of the day, the American people elected one person to be the commander-in-chief and to make decisions,” Sanders said. “The president listens to all of his national security team, of which is a big group. He takes their advice. And at the end of the day, he makes the decision.”
“If Secretary Mattis doesn’t feel like he is the right person to fill that job, I think it was the right thing and honorable thing that he did in stepping aside to put somebody in a position he feels like is the right person for that time,” Sanders said.
Undoubtedly true, and undoubtedly not reciprocated by Donald Trump in announcing James Mattis’ exit on Twitter before the Defense Secretary could announce it himself. After reading Mattis’ letter, it’s understandable why Trump might have rushed to frame it himself and set the narrative. It’s worth remembering that Mattis has been cashiered once before with considerably less dignity than Trump afforded him. In 2013, Barack Obama relieved Mattis of command at CENTCOM without even being notified of the change:
I am told that General Mattis was traveling and in a meeting when an aide passed him a note telling him that the Pentagon had announced his replacement as head of Central Command. It was news to him — he hadn’t received a phone call or a heads-up from anyone at the Pentagon or the White House.
I asked a friend about that. He wrote back:
…the commander-in-chief can make a change whenever he wants and give no reason. That is right and proper under our system of government.
But there’s also the matter of common courtesy to an uncommon man. Here is what one person wrote to me: “What message does it send to the Services when the one leader known for his war-fighting rather than diplomatic or bureaucratic political skills is retired early via one sentence in the Pentagon’s daily press handout? Even in battle, Mattis was inclusive of all under his command. He took the time to pull together his driver and guards after every day’s rotation on the battlefield, telling them what he thought he had learned and asking them for input. Surely senior administration officials could have found the time to be gracious. But they didn’t.” Bing West, admittedly a friend of Mattis and fellow Marine, tells me: “It was injudicious to truncate Mattis’s command time because his toughness was well-known across the Middle East. The image of a determined warfighter is precisely what a commander-in-chief should cherish when trying to exert leverage upon a recalcitrant Iran.”
At least this time Mattis controlled the exit, if not the announcement.
So who wants to follow Mattis at the Pentagon? Perhaps Trump himself offered a clue:
Tata retired nearly ten years ago and began a new career as a novelist; Dark Winter is the latest of his military-political thrillers. The former Army Ranger and brigadier general has also served as the head of North Carolina’s Department of Transportation and as the COO of the Washington DC public school system, but got fired from a similar position in Wake County, NC after an operational issue with their buses. Since then he’s made several appearances on Fox News, most recently to defend Trump’s decision to send the military to the US border:
Tata, a Republican who served as the head of state transportation for two years in former Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration, called the domestic deployment the fulfillment of Trump’s pledge to be “tough on the border.”
“President Trump is a man of his word, he said he was going to be tough on the border and he is tough on the border,” Tata said during the Sunday interview. …
In the five minute interview, Tata was asked about the effectiveness of mobilizing troops as an immigration tactic and the “consternation it has caused on the left.”
“The left has an immediate visceral reaction in the opposite direction to anything that President Trump does for a lot of different reasons,” Tata said.
Among those: “He’s fighting the globalists tooth and nail by espousing patriotism and nationalism, as he should, as we should all do within this great country.”
If Trump’s looking for a full-MAGA SecDef, Tata would fit the bill. Another Fox News contributor, Gen. Jack Keane, clearly won’t:
Scathing criticism of POTUS Syria withdrawal from Jack Keane, a top candidate to replace Mattis: “This is a huge strategic mistake that I hope the President will reconsider and if he does not, I believe with some degree of confidence that he will come to regret this decision.”
— Jennifer Griffin (@JenGriffinFNC) December 21, 2018
Keane made an appearance on Politico’s curtain raiser for the job search, but Tata didn’t. The other names on their list make little more sense, considering the situation and Trump’s position on Syria, Afghanistan, and treatment of alliance partners in general. Dan Coats was busy lamenting the loss of Mattis this morning, for instance, and Lindsey Graham has been in full rebellion ever since the announcement of the Syria withdrawal. Tom Cotton is even more hawkish than Graham. Former Senator Jim Talent would make some sense if Trump wanted to follow a traditional alliance-based defense policy.
The only one left on Politico’s list that makes any sense is Mattis deputy Patrick Shanahan, a big voice for Trump’s Space Force:
A former Boeing executive, Shanahan has been a vocal booster within the Pentagon for Trump’s Space Force. In November, he brushed back an Air Force estimate that standing up the force would cost $13 billion, saying it should cost much less.
He’s a frequent visitor to the White House and, due to his corporate background, would bring a different perspective than a retired general.
Shanahan would at least bring a little continuity into a chaotic mess, but he might have the same philosophy as Mattis and Keane. So far, Tata seems like a good bet, assuming he’s interested in putting down the pen for a couple of years.