Trump, Mat­tis show grow­ing signs of strain

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - NATION - By David S. Cloud David S. Cloud is a Los An­ge­les Times writer.

WASH­ING­TON — When De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis de­clared last month that he had “no plans” to can­cel fu­ture joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cises with South Korean forces, it brought him a very pub­lic re­buke from Pres­i­dent Trump.

“There is no rea­son at this time to be spend­ing large amounts of money on joint U.S.-South Korea war games,” Trump fired back the next day in a tweet he la­beled “State­ment from the White House.” He un­der­scored only “the Pres­i­dent” could restart ex­er­cises he had abruptly sus­pended af­ter his June sum­mit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The un­usual spat high­lighted Mat­tis’ pre­car­i­ous stand­ing with Trump. The pres­i­dent once rev­eled in the 68year-old re­tired Marine gen­eral’s rep­u­ta­tion as a bat­tle-hard­ened warrior — call­ing him “Mad Dog” to Mat­tis’ dis­tress — but re­cently ap­pears to have wea­ried of him, re­port­edly mock­ing him as “Mod­er­ate Dog.”

Cur­rent and for­mer Pen­tagon of­fi­cials who have ob­served the re­la­tion­ship first­hand cite grow­ing signs of dis­cord that raise ques­tions about how much longer Mat­tis, long seen as a steady­ing force in the Trump Cabi­net, will remain at the Pen­tagon.

More than spe­cific pol­icy dis­agree­ments, the grow­ing es­trange­ment stems from Trump’s be­lief that Mat­tis is se­cretly dis­mis­sive of him and con­stantly try­ing to out­ma­neu­ver him, of­fi­cials say.

“He thinks Mat­tis isn’t loyal in the way Trump wants all his peo­ple to be loyal — publicly, un­ques­tion­ingly and com­pletely,” said a na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cial who has ob­served the re­la­tion­ship and spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity.

On the other side, as­so­ci­ates say Mat­tis’ frus­tra­tion at Trump’s of­ten im­petu­ous style and pen­chant for blind­sid­ing the Pen­tagon with ma­jor pol­icy an­nounce­ments could prompt him even­tu­ally to quit.

Once-fre­quent phone calls be­tween the two af­ter Trump took of­fice last year have dwin­dled to oc­ca­sional con­ver­sa­tions. Pol­icy clashes that once un­folded in pri­vate are in­creas­ingly sur­fac­ing publicly, of­ten be­cause Trump seems de­ter­mined to send a mes­sage to Mat­tis that he is in charge.

They have been at odds over Trump’s de­mand to bar trans­gen­der re­cruits from the mil­i­tary, his call to cre­ate a new armed ser­vice called space force, his ver­bal at­tacks on NATO al­lies, his sug­ges­tions that he may cut U.S. troop lev­els in Europe and Asia, and on the timetable for re­mov­ing U.S. troops from Syria.

Na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton’s hard­line ap­proach to Iran and other na­tional se­cu­rity is­sues mesh bet­ter with Trump’s dis­rup­tive in­stincts than Mat­tis’ of­ten more strate­gic ap­proach, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cials.

Asked last week at the Pen­tagon to de­scribe his re­la­tion­ship with Trump, Mat­tis replied, “No prob­lem. It’s been the same all along.”

Pressed whether he in­tended to serve out the rest of Trump’s first term, Mat­tis replied, “This is not a day I’m go­ing to go fur­ther into politics,” and shortly there­after ended the ques­tions.

“Sec­re­tary Mat­tis is laser-fo­cused on do­ing his job — en­sur­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary re­mains the most lethal force on the planet,” Pen­tagon press sec­re­tary Dana White said Fri­day. “There is no day­light be­tween the sec­re­tary and pres­i­dent when it comes to sup­port­ing our ser­vice mem­bers and their mis­sion.”

Jour­nal­ist Bob Wood­ward wrote in a book re­leased Tues­day that Mat­tis has told as­so­ci­ates Trump had “a fifth- or sixth-grader” un­der­stand­ing of the chal­lenge on the Korean Penin­sula and that Mat­tis once dis­re­garded a pres­i­den­tial di­rec­tive to as­sas­si­nate Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad. Mat­tis later de­scribed the ac­count as “fic­tion.”

The Pen­tagon chief ’s re­fusal to air dif­fer­ences with the White House in pub­lic has kept him mostly out of the crosshairs in Trump’s tweets. But his aver­sion to lav­ish­ing praise on Trump publicly the way other Cabi­net mem­bers have has not gone un­no­ticed.

“Mat­tis is cer­tainly op­er­at­ing on the less-is­more strat­egy when it comes to the White House,” said Derek Chol­let, a for­mer se­nior of­fi­cial in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion who worked with Mat­tis. “It’s not sur­pris­ing that to some ex­tent he is los­ing al­ti­tude.”

Doug Mills / New York Times

Pres­i­dent Trump speaks to De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis at a White House Cabi­net meet­ing in June.

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