The original plan was for James Mattis to serve as the secretary of Defense through the end of February, giving the White House time to search for his successor, and creating the conditions for a smooth transition from one Pentagon chief to the next.
Indeed, soon after Mattis announced his resignation, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters, “Let’s not forget, he is not just walking out the door. This will be orderly process and continue to be a good relationship over the next couple of months.”
That didn’t last. Donald Trump eventually learned via television what the retired four-star general wrote in his resignation letter – which the president could’ve read but didn’t – at which point the Republican asked someone to direct Mattis to leave his post on Dec. 31, without a successor in mind.
Soon after, during his trip to Iraq two weeks ago, Trump went on and on about all of the great people who are eager to lead the Pentagon.
“I will say that I’ve got everybody – everybody and his uncle wants that position. And also, by the way, everybody and her aunt – just so I won’t be criticized for that last statement.
“Everybody wants that position. Everybody. Everybody – so many people want to be – who wouldn’t want to be secretary of Defense? … So we have a lot of people. We have a lot of great people who want to be secretary of Defense.”
That was the first big hint that all was not well with the search for the cabinet position. When the president repeats a dubious claim like that, Shakespeare coined the “doth protest too much” phrase for a reason.
But we’re not just dealing with hints. Politico reported that Trump is “having a tough time” finding someone to fill the position, and former Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and retired Gen. Jack Keane have both waved off the White House’s overtures.
There was also some reporting that former Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) was under consideration, but the president himself knocked it down. (Maybe Webb wasn’t really in contention, maybe Webb turned Trump down and this was the face-saving lie.)
Stepping back and looking at this in the broader context, there are a couple of angles to keep in mind. The first is that Trump has made it abundantly clear that serving as his Defense secretary is a deeply unappealing prospect for most people. The president repeatedly ignored Mattis’ sound advice, gave Mattis reason to question Trump’s judgment, and showed the retired general nothing but contempt and disrespect once Mattis headed for the exit.
It’s hard to imagine any qualified official saw the developments and thought, “How do I sign up for that gig?”
The second angle is the familiarity of these circumstances. Trump struggled to find capable attorneys to serve on his defense team. He struggled to find a White House national security adviser. He struggled to find a White House communications director. The White House in general has routinely had difficulties finding people willing to serve on Trump’s team.
It says far more about Trump’s presidency than he’s prepared to admit.