When Donald Trump’s presidency was just getting started, the new president seemed eager to receive advice from James Mattis, the retired general who now serves as the Defense secretary. That did not, however, last very long.
Mattis urged the president not to move the U.S. embassy in Israel, and Trump ignored him. Mattis explained to the president that the international nuclear agreement with Iran was the basis for regional stability, and Trump ignored him again. Mattis spent weeks lobbying behind the scenes to help shape the president’s June address to NATO leaders, and Trump “deleted” the language the Pentagon chief helped write.
But as it turns out, the Defense secretary occasionally ignores the White House, too. The Washington Post published an interesting profile on Mattis this week, which included an amazing anecdote.
For weeks, Mattis had been resisting requests from the White House to provide military options for Iran. Now Trump made clear that he wanted the Pentagon to deliver a range of plans that included striking Iranian ballistic missile factories or hitting Iranian speedboats that routinely harassed U.S. Navy vessels.
“Why can’t we sink them?” Trump would sometimes ask about the boats.
National security adviser H.R. McMaster and his staff laid out the president’s request for Mattis in a conference call, but the defense secretary refused, according to several U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations.
“In the weeks that followed,” the article added, “the options never arrived.”
In other words, if this anecdote is accurate, the sitting president of the United States – the commander in chief of the nation’s armed forces – sought a plan from the Pentagon; the Defense secretary thought the president’s request was misguided; and so the cabinet secretary balked.
And the president’s request went unmet.
There’s a chain of command within the executive branch – and within the military – and Mattis does not outrank Trump. But in practice, it’s quite likely that the Pentagon chief knows that the amateur president has no idea what he’s doing, and there are potentially dangerous consequences to giving Trump options he might want to act on, so for everyone’s sake, the responsible thing to do is to refuse some of the president’s most irresponsible requests.
In any normal administration, if the White House made a request for military options to the Pentagon, and the Defense secretary refused to provide one, that cabinet secretary would soon be unemployed.
We’re frequently reminded that nothing about Trump World is normal.