From almost before President Trump took the oath of office, major national publications were running speculative pieces on how a Republican administration could remove President Trump from power. You had stories of a “suicide pact” involving Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin whereby they agreed if one of them was fired, then the other two would quit, and the uproar could possibly trigger a 25th Amendment action by the remaining cabinet secretaries. During one of the low points of our national history, when we were going through the Russia Hoax, Rod Rosenstein allegedly (some say sarcastically) offered to wear a wire during a meeting with President Trump to gain the evidence needed to convince the cabinet and Vice President Mike Pence to remove him.
We’ve seen some active measures taken to provoke a removal from office. James Comey, for instance, laid the groundwork for a special counsel investigation of something he knew did not happen in order to bring about impeachment. The smug and gelatinous Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman actually managed to engineer an impeachment trial.
Now, in Bob Woodward’s new book, Rage, which is his insider’s account/score-settling of the Trump administration, we have another example.
The book documents private grumblings, periods of exasperation, and wrestling about whether to quit among the so-called adults of the Trump orbit: Mattis, Coats, and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Mattis quietly went to Washington National Cathedral to pray about his concern for the nation’s fate under Trump’s command and, according to Woodward, told Coats, “There may come a time when we have to take collective action” since Trump is “dangerous. He’s unfit.”
In a separate conversation recounted by Woodward, Mattis told Coats, “The president has no moral compass,” to which the director of national intelligence replied: “True. To him, a lie is not a lie. It’s just what he thinks. He doesn’t know the difference between the truth and a lie.”
Taking into consideration that this is Dan Coats telling Bob Woodward telling us the story, here are some thoughts.
First and foremost, I don’t understand why anyone would ethically serve someone who they viewed to be unfit. Mattis is smart enough to know that no matter how good you are, you can’t compensate for unfitness, be it emotional, intellectual, or moral in nature. He has also been around long enough to have had this Elbert Hubbard quote drummed into him:
“If you work for a man, in heaven’s name work for him! If he pays you wages that supply you your bread and butter, work for him – speak well of him, think well of him, stand by him and stand by the institution he represents. I think if I worked for a man I would work for him. I would not work for him a part of the time, and the rest of the time work against him. I would give an undivided service or none. If put to the pinch, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness.”
The idea that Mattis took the job as Secretary of Defense, requiring President Trump to ask for a Congressional waiver for him to do so, and then treated the man so shabbily behind his back makes me think one hell of a lot less about Mattis.
Secondly, Jim Mattis is Roman Catholic. The National Cathedral is also a)
pagan Episcopalian and b) nowhere near either the Pentagon, the White House, or Mattis’s quarters. The Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle is much closer to the White House than the National Cathedral if, indeed, he needed to unburden his soul for falling for the temptation of power.
The dark whisper about needing to “take collective action,” is concerning. It is one thing if a civilian cabinet secretary goes there. But if a recently retired Marine general starts talking about removing the president via “collective action,” it carries with it a whiff of Bonapartism and imagery more appropriate to Buenos Aires or Tegucigalpa than Washington, DC. It smacks of the classic thriller, Seven Days in May. (See Mike Ford’s excellent story on this that Woodward’s book has made relevant again, 7 or 8 Days in May.
At this point, color me agnostic on this account. On the one hand, we have Dan Coats using Bob Woodward to settle scores with Trump. And some of the interior narrative makes no sense…like the National Cathedral. On the other hand, I don’t think Mattis ever bothered to try to conceal his contempt of Trump, so there may be color commentary from Coats, but the underlying story is eminently believable.
This all points to the underlying weakness of the incoming Trump administration that prevented it, in my view, from being one of the most significant first terms of any president in the past 60 or so years. Trump ran as a legitimate outsider. Lots of guys run as an outsider, but virtually none of them are. It is all kabuki for the rubes in the cheap seats. When they are elected, they are surrounded by the same old faces we’ve seen in a half-dozen other administrations. When Trump was elected, it was despite the best efforts of the GOP establishment to defeat him in the primary and sandbag him in the general. He was faced with unremitting hostility, and he had no band of loyalists with whom to fill the vacant policy positions in the administration. This forced him to fall back on hiring resumes. Mattis had a great reputation; Trump was enamored with generals. Tillerson had run a highly successful multinational corporation, and Trump liked that. He did reward early supporters, which is how Jeff Sessions ended up as a weak-sister Attorney General when a wartime consigliere was desperately needed.
With key policy posts held by people who were not only personally disloyal to Trump but who opposed his policies at every step, he was hamstrung, and the fact that he managed to accomplish anything at all is a miracle.
Assuming this story is true, it paints a shameful picture of Jim Mattis. He’s not the legendary “warrior monk,” he’s a disloyal and duplicitous man who took a job from a man he had no intention of serving to the best of his ability and then proceeded to sabotage him behind the scenes. Not a good look at all.