A Sober Look at Mattis’ 'Clashes’ with the President

The controversy surrounding many of the president’s policies continues to heat up by the day. Mounting criticism not only from the media but fellow party members, often gives the impression that the policy direction of the chief executive is unorganized and unhinged.

Amid all this noise are reports that yet another Trump cabinet member- Secretary of Defense James Mattis- is at odds with the president on two of his recent controversial policy positions.

Let’s assess, shall we?

It’s been two weeks since President Trump released his memorandum on transgender individuals in the armed services. The text of the order blatantly states that the “previous Administration failed” when it repealed earlier policies that prohibited transgenders from openly serving in the military.

In responding to his recent directive from the president, Mattis stated that he intended to convene a panel from the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, to assess going about implementing the order. The goal of the panel would be to promote "military readiness, lethality, and unit cohesion" in the context of the transgender ban. Mattis told a press conference that "In the interim, current policy with respect to currently serving members will remain in place."

Some observers saw Mattis’s call for a panel assessment as a deliberate stall to push off the implementation of Trump’s order. It is quite possible that the Secretary’s intentions were to kick the can down the road in order to give himself time to adjust certain elements of it, or even convince Trump to rescind on the memorandum altogether.

But we’ll get to that in a minute.  

To put things in proper perspective, the order did not kick anyone out from the US military based on gender identity. The order did stop the active recruitment of transgenders and other policies actively funding the needs of transgenders currently serving. One issue strongly emphasized in the order, and arguably the single biggest point in the text, is prohibiting the use of military resources to fund sex-reassignment operations or related procedures.

Additionally, the order is heavily, and I mean heavily, caveated to allow for alterations at any future point.


“The Secretary of Defense, after consulting with the Secretary of Homeland Security, may advise me at any time, in writing, that a change to this policy is warranted.”

A few paragraphs later the president writes that he is open to any change in these new rules if his cabinet members can “provide a recommendation that I find convincing.”

It’s almost as if Trump is asking to be talked out of the policy he just signed.

The more likely interpretation of these conditions, however, is that Trump realized how controversial the issue would be. He left open the possibility for the severity of the order to be mitigated by a relevant authority later down the line.

Consider the fact that the memorandum states that the president's directive will not impinge on “the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof.”

All of this more or less leaves an open door for Mattis or other department heads to make significant alterations to the order regarding issues under their auspices.

Mattis understands this. His move of setting up a panel indicates that he is treading lightly and smartly, setting up the situation that will allow him, if he sees necessary, to gently sway the policy to a more tempered version. This is likely what Mattis meant went he said shortly after the memorandum’s release that following the panel’s report, he will provide “advice to the president concerning the policy direction.”  

Then there is there's the North Korea issue.

After a string of provocative rhetoric and military exercises including the test firing of ballistic missiles, the talk of a military response to North Korea, both in the US and internationally, started to rear its head.

The first signs of a possible rift between Mattis and the President came in late August when the president tweeted a comment that seemed to imply that diplomacy with North Korea was over. “talking is not the answer,” read Trump’s feed.  

When Mattis was asked about the tweet hours later, he seemed to disagree. “We are never out of diplomatic solutions,” Mattis told reporters. On another occasion, Mattis remarked that the president’s statements regarding North Korea didn’t necessarily reflect how policies would be carried out: “This is not a man who is immune to being persuaded if he thinks you’ve got an argument.”

Many saw these statements as Mattis intentionally putting down the president's more fiery position.

The truth is, Mattis has shown that he also has a hardline stance when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Mattis stated in a recent press conference that "any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming."

Mattis even concluded: “We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country - namely North Korea, but as I said, we have many options to do so.”

In all of these above instances, Mattis is not coming to oppose, nor lavishly support Trump’s positions. What he is doing is conducting a balancing act, by expressing both a willingness to execute and a non-reactionary approach. This includes both a) assessing options, and b) demonstrating reserve.  

To sum this all up and walk away with an accurate picture, it is important to understand who James Mattis is, and by extension what he provides as an employee of the president.

While nicknames like “Mad Dog” may imply the contrary, Mattis is not a hawkish brute waiting for the next excuse to pull the trigger- or press the “redbutton.”

What makes Mattis unique amongst Trump’s cabinet is his persona of stability and experience. Many Americans are rightly thankful that someone of his caliber is where he is. Those who are nervous about Trump’s alleged incompetence in politics and lack of experience in many areas of important decision-making feel that at least having a former four-star general in charge of defense might ward off catastrophe if Trump ever faces a serious foreign crisis.

From the beginning, everyone seemed to want Mattis at the president’s side- including Congress- which produced a special waiver allowing Mattis to serve in his position despite not having met the mandatory seven-year limit between retiring from the military and occupying the Defense Secretariat.

Mattis is a seasoned pragmatist who has always preached of the fundamentally chaotic nature of conflict (not just the armed type) and the need to avoid it. His career has demonstrated his views on this point very clearly.

One poignant example will suffice:

Remember that famous Mattis quote that was circulating around the net for a while? “I come in peace, but I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you f*ck with me, I’ll kill you all”? This viral meme was meant to convey just how macho and hungry-for-a-fight Mattis is by nature.    

The real story behind that quote sends a very different message.

This was actually a message that Mattis gave, by some accounts personally, to local Iraq leaders after the initial stages of the 2003 invasion were completed. Mattis ordered the heavy weapons under his command, including armor and artillery, to be removed from active deployment to demonstrate his desire to de-escalate violence that’s what he meant by “I come in peace.” What Mattis was actually saying was: “Listen, I can fight, but I really don’t want to.”

This line can probably sum up Mattis’s general strategic view, namely, know how to act aggressively and decisively but avoid having to do so.

Regardless of how the two issues of transgenders in the military and North Korea will play themselves out, the recent back-and-forth between Trump and Mattis provides a test to see if the dynamic between the two men is capable of remaining stable. Every president needs to be surrounded by steady hands, who are both experienced and competent. Mattis seems to be one of the only people, perhaps the only one, who fits that bill in the current administration. Donald Trump is lucky to have him. On Mattis’s part, he is a soldier, and he will remain loyal to the president and within the confines of his authority, barring some catastrophic incident through which he sees remaining in his position as irreconcilable with his principles.

The running of course of these issues may end up demonstrating that Mattis has the steadiness and fortitude to mitigate Trump’s often high-handed moves.

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