Tonight's Bout: Mad Dog Mattis versus the Trump Transition Team

Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday, July 27, 2010, to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to be commander of the U.S. Central Command. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Back in the early part of the 20th Century as recent Jewish immigrants to New York City imitated the Irish and Dutch and Germans before them by creating ethnic political machines, when you sought a job on New York’s Lower East Side the first question asked was “who is your rabbi?” From this one answer the potential employer could tell a lot about your politics, your background, and your relative political worth to his organization. Without the right rabbi, you didn’t get a good job.


This is not new. The Royal Navy during the age of sail was built on a system of “interest.” You were employed or left ashore on half-pay based entirely upon the power of your patrons of higher rank. A young man with the right connections would be made captain at the first opportunity. Admiral Lord Rodney made his son captain at age 15. If you had a powerful patron, other senior officers might favor you as a way of currying favor with their superior. Without interest you might never achieve promotion or even employment.

To a great extent, the executive branch is staffed on a “who’s your rabbi basis.” A cabinet secretary might get a few positions to fill with his personal favorites but most of the Schedule C employees in the federal government, from Deputy Secretary down to GS-9 “confidential secretaries” and “special assistants” will be filled from the White House. Most of them will be either political donors or campaign staff or represent some particular constituency (like veterans groups, for instance) that the administration view as keen. Their loyalty will be to someone in the White House, not to their cabinet secretary.

One of the interesting jobs I had in the Pentagon was a tour as a military aide to an assistant secretary in one of the civilian cabinet departments. The assistant secretary and his deputy not only didn’t like each other but had different patrons. The patron of the deputy was more powerful than my boss’s and so he couldn’t even get rid of his own deputy who undercut him to the White House at every opportunity. To call this way of operating dysfunctional is an understatement.


This is what is playing out now in the Department of Defense where Secretary of Defense-designee James Mattis is locked in a battle of wills with the Trump transition team.

The honeymoon seems to be ending between retired Gen. James N. Mattis and Donald Trump’s transition team amid an increasingly acrimonious dispute over who will get top jobs in the Defense Department — and who gets to make those decisions.

With only two weeks left before Inauguration Day and days before Mattis’s Senate confirmation hearing, most major Pentagon civilian positions remain unfilled. Behind the scenes, Mattis has been rejecting large numbers of candidates offered by the transition team for several top posts, two sources close to the transition said. The dispute over personnel appointments is contributing to a tenser relationship between Mattis and the transition officials, which could set the stage for turf wars between the Pentagon and the White House in the coming Trump administration.

Initially, both Mattis and the Trump team intended to engage in a collaborative process whereby Mattis would be given significant influence and participation in selecting top Pentagon appointees.

But the arrangement started going south only two weeks later when Mattis had to learn from the news media that Trump had selected Vincent Viola, a billionaire Army veteran, to be secretary of the Army, one source close to the transition said.

“Mattis was furious,” said the source. “It made him suspicious of the transition team, and things devolved from there.”

Service secretaries represent potential alternate power centers inside the Defense Department, and Mattis as defense secretary has an interest in having secretaries who are loyal to him and don’t have independent relationships with the White House.


What Mattis is doing is shrewd and he’s also one of the very few cabinet secretaries who can pull this off and make it stick.

Trump has invested a lot personal capital in appointing Mattis to be SecDef. As you know, in order for Mattis to be confirmed Congress must pass a special law waiving the provision of Title 10 US Code that requires a commissioned officer of the regular component of any service have been retired or separated for at least seven years before serving as SecDef. This gives Mattis immense leverage. The political drama of Mattis simply walking away over the White House not letting him appoint subordinates would be immense.

If Mattis is able to bludgeon the administration into giving him his choice of subordinates, he might very well be a truly transformative Defense Secretary. If I were betting on who wins this fight I know my money would be on Mattis.


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