Defense Secretary James Mattis has made clear that he is politically neutral after President Trump recently called him “sort of a Democrat” – potentially a kiss of death in this administration.
“When I was 18, I joined the Marine Corps, and in the U.S. military we are proudly apolitical,” Mattis told reporters on Monday.
“By that, I mean that in our duties, we were brought up to obey the elected commander in chief, whoever that is. And we've seen, over those — since I was in the military longer than some of you have been alive, I have seen Republicans and Democrats come and go.”
Mattis said he has never registered for any political party and that he works with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress to get the president’s agenda done. But speculation that the knives are out for Mattis increased in spring, when Mira Ricardel joined the National Security Council, the Washington Post reported on Monday.
In a written statement to Task & Purpose, Ricardel said, “The NSC is coordinating across government agencies to implement the President’s agenda, including with the Defense Department under the leadership of General Mattis, for whom I have great respect.”
Related: Does President Trump Still Listen To Mattis? Reports Say No.»
Speaking to reporters while en route to Vietnam, Mattis said the media was playing up supposed internal divisions within the Trump administration. “I realize you all write about tension between this person and that, this administration and that party, and this sort of thing.”
However, Trump raised eyebrows during an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired on Sunday, in which he said he thought Mattis leans to the left politically.
“I think that he is sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said. “But Gen. Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well.”
But former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who briefly headed Trump's transition team, told ABC News that the president was not signaling he intends to fire Mattis in the near future.
“What he was saying to him was, if you want to get out, now's the time; if you don't, stay until 2020,” Christie said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Mattis told reporters on Monday that he had not spoken to Trump since the “60 Minutes” interview.
“I'm on his team,” Mattis said. “We have never talked about me leaving. And as you can see right here, we're on our way. We just continue doing our job.”