WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 03: (AFP OUT) US President Donald Trump flanked by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (R) looks...
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The Trump-era pact between retired Gens. Mattis and Kelly

The Associated Press ran a lengthy piece last week on retired Gen. John Kelly taking over as Donald Trump’s new White House chief of staff, and the article largely focused on Kelly’s reputation and level of support. But way down in the piece – literally the 21st paragraph – the AP noted something the public hadn’t heard before:

[Defense Secretary James Mattis] and Kelly also agreed in the earliest weeks of Trump’s presidency that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The AP’s article didn’t dwell on this point, which is a shame because I’d like to hear a lot more about it. Two retired four-star generals joined Donald Trump’s cabinet in prominent and high-profile posts, but they were concerned enough about the president’s possible orders that they formed a pact? One of them should be on American soil at all times to keep an eye on the White House?

Putting aside the oddity of a president requiring this kind of supervision, what I’d really love to know is what exactly Mattis and Kelly intended to do if they believed “the orders rapidly emerging from the White House” were misguided or dangerous.

All of this, of course, comes against a backdrop of leading U.S. military figures taking on increasingly important roles in the Trump administration. In addition to Mattis running the Pentagon and Kelly running the White House, H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general, is the White House national security advisor. Mike Bell, a retired Army colonel, is now advising the president on the Middle East, following a shake-up of Trump’s National Security Council.

Slate’s Michelle Goldberg had a good piece on the phenomenon yesterday, noting, “It’s a sign of how thoroughly Trump has corrupted our democracy that this interlude of quasi-military rule comes as a relief to many Democrats as well as establishment Republicans. If we saw this scenario in another country – a populist demagogue of dubious legitimacy slowly being hemmed in by a clique of military men – we would easily recognize it as a sign of democratic backsliding.”

Cabinet, Donald Trump and White House

The Trump-era pact between retired Gens. Mattis and Kelly