James Mattis Runs the Risk Of Destroying His Media Reputation In One Sentence

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, smiles as President Donald Trump meets with members of his Cabinet in the Cabinet Room at the White House, Monday, March 13, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, smiles as President Donald Trump meets with members of his Cabinet in the Cabinet Room at the White House, Monday, March 13, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, right, smiles as President Donald Trump meets with members of his Cabinet in the Cabinet Room at the White House, Monday, March 13, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“I agree with the president.” If you came here to see the sentence you just read it and thanks for the click.

As a career military officer, one of the sad and amusing things I’ve observed since early 2004 is the inclination of people who oppose a Republican president to encourage the Defense Department, particularly they encourage serving general officers, to “push back.” In the days before the Iraq Surge, there were numerous op-eds encouraging generals and admirals to disobey orders from Bush and Rumsfeld in the cause of some greater good. Ever since President Trump’s inauguration and the confirmation of James Mattis as Secretary of Defense, there has been a chorus of articles either encouraging Mattis to disobey Trump, or more perniciously, claiming that he has.

Politico Jacqueline Klimas and Wesley Morgan took up the subject of his alleged mutiny–because that is what it would essentially be–in an interview.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday pushed back hard against reports that he is out of step with President Donald Trump — particularly on how to deal with North Korea — but also made clear his view that the commander-in-chief can be swayed to change his approach by a strong argument.

Mattis has come under fire recently for a series of pronouncements in which he appeared to disagree with the president, over his North Korea strategy and the ban on transgender service members, which Mattis this week delayed pending a detailed review by a panel of experts using the authority Trump granted him.

Mattis also was perceived to have criticized the government for dysfunction at its highest levels in leaked video of a talk with U.S. troops in Jordan.

But the former Marine general, who came out of retirement to serve in Trump’s Cabinet, stressed to reporters in an impromptu exchange at the Pentagon that any fundamental disagreement between the two men is “widely misinterpreted.”

“Right now, if I say ‘six’ and the president says ‘half a dozen,’ they’re going to say I disagree with him, so let’s just get over that,” Mattis said. “If that’s the story that some people want to write, then they’ll find the way, they’ll sort out something.”

This is what Mattis has to say about the manufactured difference between him and Trump on North Korea.

In the most recent example of a perceived rift between Mattis and the president, Trump seemed to imply Wednesday that diplomacy with North Korea was over, tweeting that “talking is not the answer.”

When Mattis was asked about the tweet hours later, he seemed to disagree, saying that “we are never out of diplomatic solutions.”

But Mattis insisted on Thursday that he is actually in agreement with the president. “I agree with the president, we should not be talking right now to a nation that’s firing missiles over the top of Japan, an ally. So I was — he said, ‘We’re not talking to them.’ I agree 100 percent,” Mattis said. “But we’re not done with diplomacy.”

He is not alone in that interpretation of his remarks:

“I think they do have a coherent strategy on North Korea. … The disagreement appears to be on the talking points,” [Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University] said.

Feaver also pointed out that there are several ways to interpret Trump’s North Korea tweet. While many took it to mean that the president is refusing to negotiate, Feaver thinks that by saying “talking is not the answer” Trump was signaling that he is done with the verbal back and forth that has escalated with Kim Jong Un’s regime in recent weeks.

I’ve been trying to understand the alleged refusal by Mattis to carry out Trump’s directive on banning transgenders from the military. Mattis was told to a) stop transgender accessions–and he did, b) stop any new “gender reassignment” surgeries on the government’s dime–and he did, c) and to develop regulations for dealing with transgenders still on active duty–and he is.

Many reports also asserted that Mattis was bucking the president’s order on the transgender ban by allowing currently serving troops to stay in uniform during the review period. The order, however, granted Mattis that authority and six months to iron out an implementation plan.

When Mattis announced his transgender policy review, some observers suggested he was delaying the president’s order. But he said Thursday the president would not have given him time to look closely at the issue if he didn’t want Mattis to actually examine it.

“He’s told me what he wants in broad terms, and now he’s leaving it up to me,” he said.

And there was this speech he gave in Jordan

In a leaked video of a troop talk with service members in Jordan earlier this month, Mattis told troops to “hold the line” while the country sorted through upheaval.

“Just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other, and showing it — of being friendly to one another, you know, that Americans owe to one another,” Mattis told them.

Many perceived the comments as an indictment of the dysfunction in the government and the president himself, who was roundly criticized for not forcefully enough blaming white supremacists for a violent protest in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month.

But Mattis defended those remarks on Thursday, saying that he had watched the president’s primetime address on an Afghanistan strategy and was riffing off the unity theme the president himself used to open the speech.

“Literally, I’m using the president’s thoughts, and they thought that I was distancing from the president. So I mean, it shows how ludicrous this really is,” Mattis said. “I’m not trying to make fun of the people who write along these lines, but I literally can take the president’s themes and use them and I’m still seen as at odds with the president.”

Mackubin Thomas Owens, the dean of academic affairs at the Institute of World Politics who also worked with Mattis on the book “Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military,” said he saw those remarks as “morale-building, not pushback.”

I think what we’re seeing in Mattis is a cultural disconnect from Trump simply because of the different environments each grew up in. But the idea that Mattis is going to actively or passively refuse to carry out Trump’s orders is simply nonsense. That is not the way general officers are wired. He’ll disagree if its appropriate. If he disagrees with the decision, unless it is illegal, immoral or unethical, he will feel honor-bound to carry it out as if it were his own idea. If he can’t do that he’ll resign.

The constant cheerleading for the military to disobey the president is demeaning to the military and it is against everything the Founders wanted this nation to stand for. If that happens, Mattis will not be part of it. You can take that to the bank.