There are profound civil-military implications in Bob Woodward’s account of how Defense Secretary James Mattis has handled President Donald Trump.
- After a discussion of North Korea, “Mattis was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like — and had the understanding of — 'a fifth- or sixth-grader.'”
- Trump told Mattis in a telephone call to kill Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, in retaliation for using chemical weapons. Mattis concluded the call, then said, “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.”
- “At a July 2017 National Security Council meeting, Trump dressed down his generals and other advisers for 25 minutes, complaining that the United States was losing.” (I actually have some sympathy with Trump on this one. I don’t think the military can explain what we are doing in Afghanistan at this point.)
- General Kelly on Trump: “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.”
- Weirdly, Trump criticized his national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, for dressing in cheap suits “like a beer salesman.” One reason McMaster dresses as he does is that he has spent his life serving his country, rather than making money. And, to be honest, he is built like a heavyweight boxer, and it is hard to find off-the-rack suits that fit that build.
- Not strictly national security, but certainly indicative of a national emergency: Trump’s lawyer told him, “Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jumpsuit.” Then he resigned.
What I take away from all this is that Mattis is in a difficult position. Trump is upsetting norms of how presidents behave, some of them dating back to George Washington. In response, Mattis is straining the rules of how a defense secretary and the military treat a president, some of them also dating back to Washington.
My conclusions: We all know that Trump is damaging how the government operates. But there is more damage going on behind the scenes. And it is going to get worse before it is all over.