Of all the cabinet moves President Trump could make, the worst would be replacing James Mattis as the Secretary of Defense. It’s not even close: Depending on who steps in next, the consequences could be unthinkable.
That’s why a new report from NBC News that says Mattis has fallen out of Trump’s favor should raise flags. According to the report, which NBC sourced to current and former senior White House aides, the relationship has slowly decayed over the last year, with Trump expressing frustration over Mattis’s efforts to check his agenda and slow-roll administration policies. Trump also allegedly believes Mattis looks down on him, which, yes, of course he does.
The sources said that because Trump respects Mattis as “tough,” he’s until recently given the secretary a freedom pretty much unknown to the members of his cabinet, but reportedly Trump’s impatience with Mattis’s policy objections has run short. In March, a senior White House official called Mattis “bulletproof.” Today, “They don’t really see eye to eye.”
When asked to comment on the schism, Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said, “This is pure silliness.” And from the White House side, National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said, “For an unnamed expert to claim a department is not in the loop is ludicrous.”
Familiar language. By now we should all be able to recognize a non-denial when we see one.
Trump’s change of heart raises a couple questions. First, how serious is the split? Second, what might happen if Trump fires Mattis? The upshots range from “nothing much,” to “prepare emergency plans to leave the United States.”
Making the case for Mattis
Relative to other senior officials in the Trump administration, we don’t hear or know much about Mattis. He keeps his head down, performs his job competently, avoids the cameras, doesn’t advocate for revolutionary and shortsighted top-down reorganization of his entire department, doesn’t threaten nuclear war on Twitter, doesn’t beat women, doesn’t dress down journalists, doesn’t order slightly used mattresses from his boss’s apartment building, doesn’t look like Hitler’s big right toe, doesn’t publicly criticize or humiliate Trump, and more or less stays out of the news. (Mattis does share one quality with the standard Trump cabinet member, though: The general is tangled up in a corporate scandal of his own.) But for these reasons, not many people write about how critical Mattis’s influence and example have been for keeping this administration from literally blowing itself up.
From the beginning, Mattis has resisted many of Trump’s ideas and even refused to carry out some orders. He actually seems to disagree with Trump on just about everything, as we’ll see in a bit. Unlike everyone else who orbits that flatulent orange sun, though, Mattis has gotten away with it, mostly because Trump is a 10-year-old and Mattis is a big bad Marine Corps general nicknamed “Mad Dog.” (Trump literally divides his cabinet into two levels, the higher one being “killers,” and the lower one being “winners.” Mattis has at least until now always been a”killer.”)
But Mattis’s independence has been one of the few flickers of hope in this administration. We have to remember that when dealing with a would-be authoritarian, it’s tough to overstate the importance of a pathologically ethical Secretary of Defense who won’t compromise his integrity or the role of the military at the whim of a fascist man-child. In this sense we’re lucky Trump based his choice on the branding and not the man’s character. He thought someone named “Mad Dog” would of course give his “strong” military policies a rubber stamp, but Trump didn’t understand that most career military officials are more cautious of conflict than most Americans: They’ve seen it, they know how bad it is. Mattis is among those people.
The problem a lot of liberals seem to have with Mattis is a function of the same military fetishization Trump has: He’s a hard-nosed general named Mad Dog, so of course he’s a warmonger who wants to invade the world, and we shouldn’t trust him. But though the left might have lots of legit reasons to criticize Mattis and U.S. military policy generally, we should trust him. As Trump has found out, the man’s not exactly what his nickname describes. (As Mattis himself agrees.) If you’ve developed a point of view on the guy and haven’t looked into him, you should. He’s essentially a philosopher. Foreign Policy observed that Mattis “has accumulated perhaps one of the largest personal libraries of an active-duty military officer ever known in the modern world.”
So here’s a list of some issues where the secretary breaks with Trump. They’re not petty.
1. Mattis opposed moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
2 .Mattis didn’t want Trump to send the National Guard to the U.S.-Mexico border. This was out of Mattis’s hands, of course, and Trump signed the order anyway, but Mattis told the president he found the mission myopic and ill-defined.
3. For months Mattis opposed Trump’s plan to ban transgender soldiers from the military. According to the sources in the NBC report, Mattis pushed back on Trump’s overtures for weeks and perhaps months, and when Trump tweeted it out Mattis had the Pentagon put up as many bureaucratic and legal hurdles as he could.
4. Mattis opposed pulling out of the Iran deal.
5. Mattis opposed pulling out of the Paris climate accord.
6. Mattis opposed steep new tariffs on aluminum and steel.
7. Mattis rejects torture.
8. About ten days ago, in the context of a possible Trump-Putin summit, Mattis castigated Russia for trying to undermine American democracy.
9. Mattis supports NATO and our allies: “Nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither.”
10. Last fall when Trump began floating the idea of creating Space Force as a new, sixth branch of the military, Mattis wrotea letter to Senator John McCain saying in part, “I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting efforts.”
11. When Trump went ahead and created Space Force anyway, the Pentagon’s announcement included this pregnant phrase: ”[Space Force] has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy.” A defense official told NBC News that Mattis put that statement in there himself.
12. Trump spoke with Mattis ahead of the summit with Kim Jong-un, but the two never discussed suspending joint military exercises with South Korea, an offer Trump made to Kim without telling Mattis.
13. Mattis, along with John Kelly, opposed Trump’s plan to prohibit military families from joining enlistees deployed in South Korea.
14. The secretary also stopped Trump from fully withdrawing U.S. troops from the Korean peninsula during the Olympics.
15. He convinced Trump not to pull all our troops out of Syria, but to keep them there and finish the fight against ISIS. Though we’re all war-weary, and it’s easy to see this as a bad thing, the logic is not that Mattis simply just wants war and loves bombing shit (he doesn’t), but ISIS would regroup and bloom again in the vacuum we’d leave behind. Also, Russia would take over the place.
16. Same thing for Afghanistan: Like it or not, Mattis was one of the advisers who convinced Trump to add troops. Again, this isn’t caveman logic, regardless of military stereotypes. Afghanistan is an impossible problem to solve, and like Syria, the security vacuum we’d create is much more dangerous than the war we’re now fighting.
17. Mattis sees the value of diplomacy, and views the military as being a sort of necessary evil, the last resort only when diplomacy fails, not the other way around, as Trump sees it. In 2013, Mattis told Congress, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.” Trump wants to beef military spending and dismantle the State Department.
18. Let’s not forget that before Trump was for diplomatic engagement with North Korea, he was dead set against it, tweeting last August that “Talking is not the answer!” Mattis has argued for a while now that diplomacy, not military posturing, is the way forward with North Korea. It seems he, and other voices like his, succeeded in changing Trump’s mind.
19. In fact, last August Mattis told reporters who asked about his reaction to Trump’s tweet that “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions.”
20. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is that Mattis doesn’t want war with North Korea. He feels so strongly about this he took the unusual step to describe, publicly and in chilling, objective detail, what that war would look like.
21. Though Mattis did argue for the development of new “low-yield” nuclear weapons, it doesn’t mean he’s itching to use them. He told Congress that he views small nukes as a bargaining chip: “I want to make certain that our negotiators have something to negotiate with, that we want Russia back into compliance…. I don’t believe you can go into a negotiation and try to get something for nothing. I don’t think the Russians would be willing to give up something to gain nothing from us in terms of reductions.”
22. But if you still believe Mattis is a secret war hawk, he opposed the appointment of John Bolton, a North Korea warmonger, and warmonger in general, as Trump’s National Security Adviser.
And in a short but stirring impromptu speech Mattis gave to a small group of soldiers on a visit last year to Afghanistan, the secretary reinforced the importance that soldiers hold on to their ethics, with a not so cryptic criticism of the Trump administration:
Our country right now, it’s got these problems, and you know it and I know it. It’s got these problems we don’t have in the military…. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it…. we got two powers, we got the power of inspiration, and we’ll get that one back, and we got the power of intimidation, and that’s you.
And when a soldier said, repeatedly, “God bless America!”, Mattis didn’t repeat the phrase. He smiled a little nervously, then gave a thumbs-up and said, “Oorah.”
And after Trump ordered Mattis to ban transgender Americans from serving, Mattis released a military-wide memo that read in part:
I expect every member of the Department to play the ethical midfield. I need you to be aggressive and show initiative without running the ethical sidelines, where even one misstep will have you out of bounds. I want our focus to be on the essence of ethical conduct: doing what is right at all times, regardless of the circumstances or whether anyone is watching.
It’s worth noting at this point that Mattis would in fact have grounds to refuse an order from Trump to launch nukes at North Korea. If that order is unlawful, Mattis is not only able to refuse, the military instructs him, and all soldiers, that he has an “obligation and a duty” to refuse to carry it out.
As for those remarks in Afghanistan, Mattis later walked them back when the press speculated he was distancing himself from Trump. He did this by way of saying he was using Trump’s own words.
It should go without saying that Trump has never, ever, sounded like James Mattis.
The administration is pathological: An old Trump ally disagrees with him on some policy critical to maintaining the support of his base; Trump cools to the ally; the media spatters rumors of the feud; the administration denies rumors; Trump fires distinguished public servant in humiliating way. (President Obama fired Mattis without even calling him.) This doesn’t mean Mattis is out, but it’s not “pure silliness,” either. The DOD knows that as well as anyone, and the evidence of Trump cutting Mattis out of the loop is clear even without the testimony of senior administration sources.
Then again, it’s possible that one of those sources is none other than John Bolton, who would certainly have an agenda. And that agenda would have consequences.
I hope it’s now clear what losing Mattis could mean. He speaks with perhaps this administration’s only voice of reason, and has for a year calmly and resolutely rejected Trump’s half-baked ideas. He’s managed to maneuver himself into a place where he can change the president’s mind. If Mattis were to go, lots of things would change, both domestically and abroad.
First and foremost, nuclear war. That order from Trump would have to go through Mattis. We can trust that Mattis, who is as much a philosopher and ethicist as he is anything else, won’t start a nuclear war.
John Bolton? That’s a little less clear. But without Mattis as a dependable buffer between the button and the bomb, the prospect of Trump successfully ordering a nuclear first-strike increases.
The loss of Mattis (depending on his replacement) could also change everything on the ground in Syria and Afghanistan, our stance on Russia, our relationship with our NATO allies, if and how we choose to confront China’s recent military buildup in the South China Sea, and what we plan to do about Iran.
On top of this, with Trump at the helm, we’ve got domestic military concerns we’ve never had to take seriously before. Trump is a fascist, and at the end of the spectrum, if we get that far, he’s absolutely willing to use all force available to him to hold onto power. We’ve already seen this streak when he militarized our border by sending 4,000 National Guard troops down when there was no crisis that merited it, and, per Mattis, no coherent mission. (Obama took a similar step and sent 1200 National Guard troops to the border, but that’s far fewer than Trump, and under much different conditions.) The Navy is also reportedly preparing military installations build “austere” tent camps that would house up to 125,000 immigrants, possibly more.
Of course, this all depends on who Trump would pick to succeed Mattis. His first shortlist was weird, and included conventional war hawk GOPers he’d probably never heard of, such as Iraq yellowcake mastermind Stephen Hadley, as well as nutjobs like Tom Cotton and, of course, the honorable Mike Flynn. Also, Mattis’s replacement would have to be confirmed by the Senate, unless the person Trump names had already passed confirmation for another administration position. Someone such as, oh, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who at one point was reportedly at the top of Trump’s shortlist for Defense Secretary. If Trump slides Sessions over to defense, it would also conveniently create a way to tank the Mueller investigation.
The subtext of all this, though, is that we already live in a militarized America. In a 2014 poll, one out of six Americans responded that “army rule” would be either a “good” or “very good” thing. In 1995, that number was one in sixteen. It’s now unremarkable to see civilians on the far right march around in front of statehouses and down the streets strapped with semi-automatics. A liberal woman literally got murdered at one of their rallies. Police roll through cities and towns bearing military weapons inside military vehicles, looking for all the world like a national paramilitary force. Right-wingers have committed several politically-inspired murders in the last year, perhaps the most irresponsibly underreported of these being the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas shooter. Here’s a recent op-ed from the Federalist that, though asinine, represents the very real beliefs of a very real subset of Americans, and, judging from my Twitter mentions, the group isn’t so small as you might think.
The America we have today needs the stability and levelheadedness of someone like Mattis. If he goes out the door, we might want to consider what it would be like to follow him.