Trump, Mattis show growing signs of strain
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.”
President Trump speaks to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at a White House Cabinet meeting in June.