There's a new book detailing the inside story of what it was like during Defense Secretary James Mattis' tenure, and it's safe to say that he'd prefer you not read it.
In Holding The Line: Inside Trump's Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, author Guy Snodgrass presents a fly-on-the-wall view of how the retired general operated at the Pentagon amid myriad crises, from issues with North Korea and Iran to trying to get on the same page with a chaotic White House.
Snodgrass, a retired Navy fighter pilot who served as chief speechwriter and communications director for most of Mattis' time in office, paints a revealing picture of events during a rough and tumble 1 1/2 year period, from presidential tweets coming out of nowhere to reshape military policy to news that Mattis was planning his resignation long before he ultimately dropped his papers on Trump's desk in Dec. 2018.
Task & Purpose got an advance copy of the book, which comes out on Oct. 29. Its release was initially stalled by the Pentagon for pre-publication review, and Snodgrass received threatening letters from DoD lawyers, but he ultimately was able to go ahead after he filed a lawsuit.
For his part, Mattis has said he hasn't read the book and doesn't intend to do so, according to his assistant Candace Currier.
In a statement to Task & Purpose, Currier said “Mr. Snodgrass was a junior staffer who took notes in some meetings but played no role in decision making.” (Snodgrass responded to being called a “junior staffer” by sharing the citation of an award he received from Mattis, which said he “played a vital and influential role in the Department of Defense's strategic messaging” and was “integral in developing several foundational strategic guidance documents with far-reaching effects across the Department.”)
Currier added: “His choice to write a book reveals an absence of character. He was appointed to a position of trust at the Department of Defense, and surreptitiously taking notes without authorization for a self-promoting personal project is a clear violation of that trust. He may receive a few brief moments of attention for this book. But those moments will be greatly outweighed by the fact that to get them, he surrendered his honor.”
Here's what we found were the best bits. You can check out the book for yourself here.
Mattis wrote a blistering letter citing the Constitution when asked whether he had attended the infamous Tailhook conference (he wasn't there)
“A big part of the reason I respected Mattis was his reputation for taking honorable stands throughout his military career, a fact underscored by his 'Tailhook certification' letter he submitted to the Marine Corps as a lieutenant colonel,” Snodgrass writes.
As he explains, the 1991 Tailhook scandal, and its revelations of widespread sexual assault during a convention of naval aviators, led to the Navy and Marine Corps asking Mattis and other officers to certify whether they or anyone under their command had attended before they could be promoted.
Mattis wasn't anywhere near Tailhook in Las Vegas then, and all he had to say was “Nope, I wasn't there,” but he refused to play ball.
“He composed a two-page response, citing the beliefs put forth by the Founding Fathers, of his right against 'unreasonable search and seizure' and protesting the lack of the process stemming from a demand to 'incriminate (or not incriminate) myself regarding attendance.” He wrote that he was submitting his answers under protest, only then confirming that, no, he had not attended Tailhook '91.”
Mattis didn't like H.R. McMaster at all and constantly shut him out
According to Snodgrass, while both Mattis and McMaster wanted to rein in Trump and keep him within the national security decision-making process, their own personal animus toward each other made their relationship “strained from the start.”
Mattis treated McMaster as far more junior to him, since, in his mind, McMaster was just a three-star general. And their personalities were far different, with Mattis being stoic and reserved, while McMaster tended to get excited and forcefully made his points.
“Increasingly, Mattis found one thing impossible to be stoic about: McMaster,” Snodgrass writes, adding that Mattis was often annoyed by his routine, often panicked calls to the Pentagon over the turmoil in the West Wing.
Ultimately, Mattis and Tillerson formed their own clique and undercut McMaster's authority over key decisions, according to Snodgrass.
Their relationship got so bad that at one point, when McMaster called Mattis on his plane, Mattis pretended that the call had been cut off just to screw with him.
“When he got this excited, McMaster would interrupt Mattis mid-sentence, which Mattis hated,” Snodgrass writes. “Their conversation grew heated, and the boss just stopped talking altogether.”
“Mr. Secretary, are you there?” In the background, I could hear him telling someone that he thought that the call had disconnected. We could hear him loud and clear, but Mattis was simply icing him out. He waited another five seconds before saying, “H.R., are you there? I think I lost you for a second.”
Trump has a knack for throwing briefings completely off the rails
One thing President Trump seems to be great at is sending meetings completely off-the-rails by asking off-topic questions or making declarations that make little sense to the issue at hand.
For example, Snodgrass writes, Mattis worked for weeks on a Pentagon briefing for the president on what the U.S. military was doing around the world, with troop numbers, costs, and their return on investment for the country. “As planned, the methodical, disciplined Mattis kicked off the meeting with remarks we had rehearsed in his office a number of times,” Snodgrass writes. “Unfortunately, to the room his opening sounded too much like a lecture.”
He only got through about three slides before the questions began.
“Our trade agreements are criminal,” Trump said, according to the book. “Japan and South Korea are taking advantage of the United States.”
He continued: “And the USS Ford is completely out of control with cost overruns!”
Later in the meeting, Trump brought up his idea to have a military parade based on his recent visit to France. “The French had an amazing parade on Bastille Day with tanks and everything. Why can't we do that?” he asked.
After some back-and-forth, Mattis finally said that he'd look into some options and get back to him.
“I found press reporting on the president's short attention span to be entirely accurate,” Snodgrass writes. “This isn't to say he lacks intelligence. To the contrary, my experience is that President Trump thinks quickly on his feet and can ask piercing questions if the subject matter catches his notice. But he has to be captivated by the subject. You have to to grab his attention.
“I learned an important lesson that would pay off when President Trump returned for a briefing the following January: only use slides with pictures . . . no words.”
Trump didn't tell Mattis before he tweeted that transgender people would be banned from military service.
“I was standing in the secretary's action group office as each tweet appeared on our screens,” Snodgrass writes, quoting a colleague, shaking his head in disbelief and saying “you've got to be kidding me.”
There in a Twitter post on July 26, 2017 was Trump, saying that the government would not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military — a decision he said came after “consultation with my Generals and military experts.”
But Trump obviously didn't consult his top general — Mattis — since the defense secretary had initiated a study of the issue a month prior to the tweets that would look at the impact of transgender service and whether it would stand up to legal scrutiny.
“We were less than a week after the meeting in the Pentagon, and President Trump had just U-turned a major defense department policy. Via Twitter. We hadn't even received the courtesy of a heads-up from the White House. … Trump's tweets created chaos in the Pentagon.”
Mattis, who at the time was on vacation in Washington state, joked about the lack of thought before decisions were made once he was back in the office, forming a make-believe pistol with his hand and pointing it at his temple. “No one move or the hostage gets it!” Snodgrass quotes Mattis as saying.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) chewed out Mattis for not keeping Congress up-to-date on what was happening at DoD
Describing it as “one of the most uncomfortable meetings during my time” with Mattis, Snodgrass writes of Sen. John McCain's frustration with Mattis and his lack of communication with Congress. Given his position as the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain wanted to be kept in the loop and cut straight to the chase during a contentious meeting.
“Mr. Secretary, I have an appreciation for you and your leadership team at the Pentagon,” Snodgrass quotes McCain as saying. “I remain dedicated to your leadership … but this is only the third time in nine months that I've seen you.
“There's a whole lot going on around the world but no one is coming over to inform us. There's been no hearing to make us aware of what's happening. You know, I can subpoena you if I have to. I've served on this committee for thirty-one years, and I have not seen an environment with less information in that time.”
After some back and forth, Mattis realized McCain was seriously pissed and told him he'd get him briefings on whatever topics he desired within 48 hours, which satisfied the senior senator.
“The meeting with McCain served as a stark reminder,” Snodgrass writes, explaining that Congress felt they weren't being paid the attention they deserved. “As a cabinet secretary, Mattis was expected to build relationships and goodwill, and that took time and presence. Not investing in these relationships created unwelcome tension.”
Mattis privately expressed his frustration with Trump, saying that his policies wouldn't make America stronger
While Congress and the Obama administration had reduced budgets, Trump was given credit for DoD getting more of what it needed, and for allowing less restrictive rules of engagement on the battlefield.
“One thing we need to be very careful about is discussing the tradeoffs we need to make with our military,” Mattis told staffers while working on the National Defense Strategy. “On one hand, the strategy should describe in stark terms the absolute mess we're in from sixteen years of constant war, reduced budgets, and continuing resolutions. The military is worn out and worn thin.”
But overall, Mattis was extremely frustrated with Trump's push for “America First” at the expense of longtime allies.
During an off-the-record briefing with three reporters, which Snodgrass attended, Mattis was asked what Trump's policy was with regard to allies. Mattis tried to explain that “America first does not mean America alone,” Snodgrass quotes him as saying. “You know Reagan was seen as crazy early in his first term.”
“But do you think the country will be stronger for [Trump's] policies?” a reporter asked.
Mattis didn't hesitate, Snodgrass writes, then quoting him:
“No, I don't. I've been reading Reagan's speech to business leaders on trade recently.” [Mattis] was referring to the Reagan speeches he'd asked me to retrieve for him. “I do not think Trump's policies will make America stronger, although we will appear stronger in the short term.”
Later, the Pentagon learned that Trump had signed a letter to every member of NATO regarding their level of commitment based solely on their monetary contributions, according to Snodgrass, who wrote that Norway was so incensed that a copy leaked to their press.
“The president's letters have done real damage,” Mattis said, according to Snodgrass. “I would have stopped them had I'd known about them. Pompeo didn't know … Bolton didn't know …”
Other than Stephen Miller writing them in private and sending them out, how could John Bolton not know? If anything, the offending letters had likely been drafted by a staffer at the National Security Council. It was alarming to realize the number of issues of national significance that were now occurring without a sufficient (or was it any?) amount of coordination or consideration.
Mattis learned there would be a new 'Space Force' military branch from his friend John Kelly — who called to tell him a few minutes after Trump announced it in a press conference
“Trump took to the stage in the East Room of the White House to announce that he was directing General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to establish a sixth branch of the armed forces: The Space Force. I was at my desk, watching the television, dumbfounded by Trump's announcement,” Snodgrass writes, echoing the Pentagon's previous surprise at the transgender ban.
Although Trump had raised the idea of a separate Space Force for a year, Mattis thought he had convinced him that the Air Force was still the right organization to lead space efforts, arguing that there was no need for an additional, costly bureaucracy.
Mattis thought wrong, as the announcement proved.
A few minutes after the announcement of the sixth military branch — that the guy at the top of the military had no idea was coming — the secure phone line to Mattis rang.
“It was General Kelly, White House chief of staff, calling to let Mattis know after the official announcement that Trump had just ordered the creation of a Space Force,” Snodgrass writes.
At a NATO summit, Mattis finally realized he was no longer speaking for the administration, which had been edging him out over time.
While NATO allies were worried about Trump's provocations and constant push for increased military spending — as well as their real fears that the U.S. could pull out of the alliance altogether — Mattis continued to reassure them. But he was undercut by others, until finally, he realized he wasn't really speaking for the Trump administration.
“Mattis had assured [Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General] that everything was going to be fine, a message he based on my conversation with Stephen Miller,” Snodgrass writes of a conversation he had with Miller, who assured him Trump would stay 'on message' during the summit.
“Mattis never said a word to me about it. He knew that I was merely passing along what I'd been told. My larger concern was that the boss had now confirmed that he no longer spoke for the administration. He was grossly misaligned with Trump. A similar malady had proven fatal to [Rex] Tillerson during his final few months.”
Mattis was alreadying thinking of resigning in the summer of 2018
Mattis resigned in protest of Trump's decision to unilaterally withdraw from Syria on Dec. 20, 2018, but according to Snodgrass, the defense secretary was looking for the exits long before that.
“Mattis had already decided to resign the previous summer,” Snodgrass writes. “I had — quite literally — stumbled upon the meeting that led to his decision.”
According to Snodgrass, Mattis secretly met with John Kelly in his office that summer — which was not on his schedule. When Snodgrass asked why, the scheduler said Kelly was kept off the calendar “so no one, not even our staff, would know. We want to keep this under wraps.”
The scheduler told him both were planning their departures, with Mattis leaving in the winter and Kelly staying on a little longer in the White House.
Was Mattis's scheduler pulling my leg?
No. Mattis's long-range schedule in Microsoft Outlook confirmed her remarks: all of his scheduled events stopped in December 2018. Nothing moved forward into 2019 except a daily recurrence of an hour blocked each day for “Lunch / Reading Time.”
Trump's pick of his next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was essentially a big F-You to Mattis
The pick of who would be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and other senior military leaders usually came from the Secretary of Defense, which Snodgrass writes is “among the most lasting, meaningful decisions a secretary of defense can make.”
So it was a big surprise — and a slight to Mattis — when Trump decided to pick Army Gen. Mark Milley for the top spot. “That was noteworthy for a couple of reasons,” Snodgrass writes.
First, Mattis had backed General David Goldfein, the senior officer in the US Air Force, for the role — to the exclusion of every other potential candidate. I was aware that Mattis had told Admiral John Richardson he wouldn't be named to the job. Although Mattis liked Richardson, who had worked for him at US Central Command, the ship collisions that occurred on Richardson's watch were too much. Similarly, Mattis had always had a somewhat contentious relationship with Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller. The same held true for General Milley.
Mattis felt the Army had “grown fat,” and had commented in private that Milley himself was too hefty. To Mattis, optics mattered. He demanded that all branches of the armed forces be in top fighting shape. That meant you also had to look the part.
Trump ordered Mattis to 'screw Amazon'
Writing about how Mattis always tried to translate the president's demands into ethical, well-meaning outcomes, Snodgrass reveals that Trump called Mattis in the summer of 2018 and directed him to “screw Amazon” out of a chance to bid on a $10 billion cloud networking contract.
Trump has long held a grudge against Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post. He's accused Amazon of scamming the Postal Service (it's not), and has railed against The Post as a “lobbying tool for Amazon,” often after the paper reports on news unfavorable to the president.
Snodgrass writes: “Relaying the story to us during Small Group, Mattis said, 'We're not going to do that. This will be done by the book, both legally and ethically.”
That contract award is still in dispute, at the direction of The White House.