Has ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis Lost His Influence with Trump?
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By Wes O’Donnell, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force Veteran. Managing Editor, InMilitary.com, and InCyberDefense.com. Speaker and veteran advocate.
In our nation’s history, few generals have enjoyed almost universal adoration from all branches of the United States armed forces. Charismatic leaders from the past like generals George Washington, George Patton and Norman Schwarzkopf are joined today by perhaps the most likable contemporary leader of the Global War on Terror, Marine Corps General James Mattis.
General Mattis is a modern-day Marcus Aurelius – a warrior monk and philosopher whose lack of political correctness coupled with a commonsense approach to warfighting made him a legend among the enlisted ranks. His nomination as Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration resulted in widespread celebration from all corners of the military and veteran communities.
Even opponents of the Trump administration were relieved to have such a well-regarded and thoughtful leader in a position to coach the new president in times of national crisis. Mattis was confirmed by a Senate vote of 98-1 in favor. It was a clear vote of confidence in Mattis’ capability.
Mattis’s Influence over President Trump Appears to Be Waning
In recent months, however, troubling reports from senior officials show that General Mattis’s influence within the administration is slipping. For instance, a defense official recently stated that Trump’s announcement in June that joint military exercises with South Korea would be canceled took Mattis completely by surprise. In fact, it’s reported that Mattis sat on the sidelines before, during and after Trump’s Singapore summit with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
In another example, Trump’s directive to create a “Space Force” branch of the military is in direct contradiction to Mattis’s advice. In a public statement, Mattis said, “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.”
As a result, Trump didn’t mention his Secretary of Defense when he announced his Space Force directive. Instead, he referred to his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and told him, “If you would carry that assignment out, I would be very greatly honored.”
Mattis also advised Trump to postpone abandoning the Iran nuclear accord. In May, according to two officials familiar with the matter, Mattis learned only after it was finalized that Trump had decided to withdraw from the accord.
In addition, Mattis was against moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem because the move would heighten security concerns in the region. The President ignored his warning.
Finally, Mattis was opposed to Trump sending National Guard troops to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. He told the President that he didn’t think it was a good idea. But as Defense Secretary, Mattis had no control over the move.
Mattis’s Low-Key Profile Helps Protect Him from Hearing ‘You’re Fired!’
So why hasn’t Trump fired Mattis, as he did to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and General H.R. McMaster, his former National Security Advisor?
Administration officials insist that Trump has enormous respect for General Mattis. It helps that Mattis almost never contradicts the president in public, except over the creation of a Space Corps and during congressional testimony on Trump’s 2019 federal budget request. The officials also point out that Mattis’s popularity within the military community remains widespread.
It’s conceivable, although not definitive, that canning Mattis would turn a large part of the military against Trump. Even if the president sees that as unlikely, he may not want to take that chance.
In addition, Mattis is always portrayed favorably in the media. “Mattis only gets good stories,” a former White House official says. “The media loves him, and it’s one of the reasons Trump loves him.”
Trump often judges his cabinet officials on the coverage they generate on television. In this sense, Mattis has made sure to never overshadow Trump or otherwise make the administration look bad.
Trump Still Deferring to Mattis on Important Issues
Administration officials are quick to point out that Trump still defers to Mattis on a wide range of important issues. After all, Mattis represents an institution that the President reveres; he has given Mattis complete autonomy in fighting the war against ISIS. Unlike the previous administration, when the fight against ISIS was run largely from the West Wing, Trump has given Mattis complete discretion on the matters of warfighting.
At his core, General Mattis is a Marine and a leader who is fighting to keep politics out of the military. When he was recently asked about his feelings on Trump’s proposal for a military parade, Mattis’ response may very well define his service to the U.S.: “I’m not paid for my feelings; I save those for my girlfriend.”