In light of the reported Trump plan to make America’s longtime allies pay what amounts to protection money, this is an important moment to revisit the resignation in protest last December of Defense Secretary James Mattis. It was a milestone in modern U.S. history that put in bold relief an avalanche of criticism from top national-security officials, all with a common theme: The commander in chief is unfit.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was deep into a dark day of the soul that he had long seen coming when, on Dec. 19, 2018, he received a call on his private phone. Mattis checked the identification, recognized a friend and answered the call.
“Jim, say it isn’t so,” said William Cohen, himself a former defense secretary, and before that a Republican senator from Maine.
“It’s true, Bill,” Mattis told him, confirming the shocking news that President Donald Trump had just fired off tweets prematurely claiming victory in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and ordering the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria. Trump also called for withdrawing half the 14,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan, likely crippling that mission as well.
Trump’s snap decision on Syria came just after Mattis met with partners in the anti-ISIS coalition and assured them the United States would remain committed to the Syrian mission through 2020. Rather than consulting with his top national-security advisers, Trump made the surprise decision after talking by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an autocrat fond of anti-American rhetoric and conspiracies.
In 280 characters or less, Trump had thus thrown U.S. strategy in the Middle East and Southwest Asia into disarray, with aftershocks quickly rumbling in capitals throughout the region and as far away as Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin predictably praised the decision, telling Russian media that “Donald is correct about this.”
The phone call between Mattis and Cohen was the first time the two men had spoken since the latter testified on Mattis’ behalf during his Senate confirmation in January 2017. Congress had to waive a mandated seven-year waiting period before a retired general like Mattis could be considered for the top civilian job overseeing the sprawling Defense Department. The waiting period was designed to preserve the sacrosanct principle of unambiguous civilian control of the U.S. military.
Bill Cohen had endorsed Mattis for the job in 2017 out of a belief that the election of the first president of the United States who had never served in either the military or government called for extraordinary measures, and nothing that had happened since changed that conviction. After Cohen’s congressional testimony, he and Mattis had exchanged private phone numbers, in case the latter ever needed some advice or a sympathetic ear. From the somber tone of Mattis’ voice, Cohen figured that day had finally arrived.
“How soon are the troops coming out?” Cohen asked.
“Immediately,” said Mattis, and he didn’t have to fill in the blanks for his friend.
There would be no careful preparation and planning for the U.S. military chain-of-command, no advance consultation with close U.S. allies whose security would be jeopardized, no strategy to inform the vast U.S. government bureaucracy and the multinational anti-ISIS coalition how best to respond to the change of missions and goals. Just more of the impulsive, ready-fire-aim decision-making that increasingly had come to define President Trump and the White House. Only this time, lives literally hung in the balance.
Characteristically, on one of the most difficult days of his long career, Mattis’ thoughts turned to the countless thousands of U.S. troops under his command. As a Marine Corps brigadier general and lifelong bachelor, Mattis had once pulled all-night watch duty on Christmas Eve so that a junior officer could spend Christmas with his wife and young children. The gesture explains why Mattis is sometimes affectionately referred to as a “warrior monk,” and detests the wartime nickname of “Mad Dog” that Trump had found enthralling.
On Dec. 19, Mattis thus composed a holiday video and letter to the troops, knowing full well the confusion and chaos that was about to be unleashed.
“To those in the field or at sea, ‘keeping the watch by night’ this holiday season, you should recognize that you carry on the proud legacy of those who stood the watch in decades past. In this world awash in change, you hold the line,” Mattis wrote, and, ever the student of military history, referenced General Washington and his troops crossing the Delaware River at Christmas in 1776. As if reflecting his somber mood, Mattis closed with a warning of sorts. “Storm clouds loom, yet because of you, your fellow citizens live safe at home.”
Mattis composed another letter for an altogether different audience, one that would land him unhappily in the history books as the first secretary of defense ever to resign in protest because of fundamental disagreements with his commander in chief.
The next morning, he carried that letter to the White House, where one last time Mattis tried to persuade the president to reverse course, but Trump’s mind was made up. Mattis handed over his resignation letter and agreed to stay on the job for another two months in order to ensure a smooth transition and conclude an important NATO defense ministers meeting scheduled for February. Trump played the resignation as business as usual, tweeting a few hours later, “General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February.” Apparently Trump had not bothered to read the resignation letter.
Once back at the Pentagon, Mattis the old soldier was not ready to fade away so quietly. He instructed staff to distribute the resignation letter widely. Journalists and close Washington observers immediately recognized the letter for what it was–a damning critique of the commander-in-chief. After nearly two years on the job, the president who emerges clearly from Mattis’ carefully worded resignation is dismissive of the U.S. alliances that provide the sinew in America’s superpower reach, and is unable or unwilling to grasp the profound threat to U.S. interests and the liberal international order posed by authoritarian regimes like Russia and China.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” Mattis concluded in his letter. “Because you have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
When the true meaning of Mattis’ letter was splashed across television screens and debated on cable news shows, Trump got the message and responded in a predictable fit of pique. Days later, he announced Mattis would not be staying on until February after all, and would vacate the Pentagon premises by Jan. 1, 2019. Of course Trump delivered the news by tweet.
“The warrior in Jim Mattis never quit on a mission in his life, but I could tell by the tone in his voice that day that he had reached his breaking point,” Cohen said in an interview. He noted that Mattis had been increasingly at odds with the president on a list of weighty issues, from Trump’s frequent contention that the NATO alliance is a swindle and the European Union “a foe,” to his inexplicable deference to Putin in preference to his own intelligence community. “Knowing Jim Mattis and seeing Trump’s fickle and impulsive leadership, and the shameful mental abuse that he routinely inflicts on his top advisers, I think Mattis only stuck around for as long as he did out of a strong sense of patriotism. But at some point you have to ask yourself if you can do the job and still maintain your sense of integrity.”
In the short interim since the Mattis resignation the nation has endured the longest government shutdown in history, for instance, and President Trump delivered a State of the Union address in which he conjured a national security emergency out of an immigrant caravan on the southern border, while announcing a second summit with North Korea’s truly threatening dictator Kim Jong Un, who Trump has “fallen in love” with over Kim’s “beautiful letters.”
In late January, leaders of the U.S. Intelligence Community testified before Congress and publicly contradicted the president’s claims that a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons is no longer a threat, that ISIS has been defeated, and that the situation at the southern border with Mexico amounts to a national security emergency.
In the interim U.S. policy in the Middle East has also predictably devolved into strategic incoherence, with top Trump administration officials traveling to the region and announcing long-term conditions for the withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops that is already well underway, and then backtracking after being contradicted by President Trump’s tweets. In another jarring break with civil-military tradition, U.S. Central Command chief General Joseph Votel recently publicly disagreed with his commander-in-chief’s decision to pull troops out of Syria, stating unequivocally in an interview with CNN that ISIS has not been defeated. Then Trump reversed course yet again and announced that roughly 400 U.S. troops would be staying in Syria after all, along with allied partners.
In mid-February, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Europe and lashed out at the United States’ closest and most important NATO allies for failing to fall obediently in line behind the Trump administration’s unilateral decision to abandon a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, and then warned of a growing divide in transatlantic relations that is already acutely felt in Europe. Trump also officially declared a “national emergency” on the southern border in an effort to bypass Congress and build a wall with taxpayer money, an assault on Congressional authorities and the Constitution’s separation of powers that a bipartisan group of 58 former senior intelligence, diplomatic and national security officials denounced as unjustified and a serious erosion of presidential credibility “with foreign leaders, both friend and foe.”
To cap off the tumultuous month, Trump’s late-February summit with Kim Jong Un in Vietnam collapsed in disarray, with Trump abruptly walking away from the negotiating table and foregoing a planned signing ceremony and North Korea resuming construction at a long-range missile testing facility.
Meanwhile, a number of media outlets recently reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will soon complete his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and possible Trump campaign collusion in that effort, even as Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified before Congress and alleged under oath that his former boss was involved as president in criminal activity.
Defense Secretary Mattis’ resignation-in-protest may have sunk quickly beneath that tsunami of headlines, but it is viewed as an important marker by some of the nation’s most respected former flag officers and national security officials precisely because the issues it highlighted put the current chaos and rapidly mounting crises into context. Their willingness to break with the nonpartisan tradition of even retired U.S. military and intelligence officials and speak out is due in part to the historic nature of the resignation and the respect accorded Mattis as one of the preeminent warrior intellectuals of his generation of military leaders. But his resignation is also notable for the critique of the commander-in-chief that accompanied it, and the belief by many stewards of U.S. national security that it largely explains why America and the alliance of free peoples that it professes to lead feel so dangerously unstable right now, with worse very likely to come.
“If we have someone who is as selfless and committed as Jim Mattis resigning his position, walking away from all the responsibility he feels for every service member in our forces, and he does so in a public way like that, we ought to stop and say, ‘Okay, why did he do it?’” said retired General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and a Special Forces pioneer who was behind the 2006 killing of arch terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Speaking to ABC News’ Martha Raddatz, McChrystal suggested that “we ought to ask what kind of commander-in-chief he had that Jim Mattis, ‘the good Marine,’ felt he had to walk away.”
In the interview, McChrystal left no doubt that he believes the commander Mattis walked away from is not only fundamentally dishonest, but also “immoral.” That assessment provides a “pretty good summary of what most generals think about the President’s character,” Admiral James Stavridis, a former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, wrote recently in Time Magazine. Stavridis attributes the exodus of Mattis and the other generals in Trump’s inner circle to the president’s chronic lack of discipline, indifference towards preparation and expert opinion, impulsive decision-making even on matters of great consequence, and instinctively dismissive attitude towards allies.
“I think Secretary Mattis clearly felt that Trump’s attitude toward our allies hurt the U.S. position in the world, but the Syria pullout–done without benefit of a coherent interagency process–was the final straw,” Stavridis wrote me in an email.
Retired Lt. General Mark Hertling formerly commanded the U.S. Army Europe, and he was an assistant division commander in Iraq. “I was not really surprised by Mattis’ resignation, because I had been wondering what was taking him so long given how frequently Trump was walking his top advisers to the edge in terms of ethics and morality,” he said in an interview. “What worries me now is that Trump has created an absolutely toxic leadership environment that has driven good people like Mattis away, and the replacements and those who remain have shown no courage nor inclination to push back against the president’s worst impulses. Instead Trump has created a cabal of like-minded people who share his worldview and are loyal only to him, and I am very concerned how that dynamic will play out if the administration confronts a real crisis not of its own making.”
Indeed, the issues surfaced by Mattis’ resignation-in-protest, and others raised by a host of former senior officers and national security experts who have recently seconded his critique, deserve a close examination precisely because of the existential stakes.
Their writ starts with a backstabbing and chaotic White House–chronicled in meticulous detail in books like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Bob Woodward’s Fear and Cliff Sims’ Team of Vipers–that has driven away capable and experienced officials, made it difficult to replace them with qualified successors, and routinely produces haphazard decision making that sows chaos and interagency confusion.
Their case includes the president’s stubborn disregard for factual truth, skewing real-world policies on issues ranging from North Korea’s nuclear weapons to the supposed “defeat” of ISIS, and Trump’s insistence on viewing everything through a partisan prism that politicizes all issues and erodes public trust in non-partisan institutions such as the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
The critique also highlights Trump’s belittling and transactional approach that has badly undermined venerable alliances, even as Trump maintains chummy and inexplicably obsequious relations with murderous dictators, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un.
Taken together, Defense Secretary Mattis’ first ever resignation-in-protest and the issues it has surfaced represent the worst crisis in civil-military relations since the 2006 revolt of the generals against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s mismanagement of the Iraq War. In that instance eight senior retired generals made headlines by publicly calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation on the grounds that he was on the cusp of losing a major war, with potentially devastating consequences for U.S. national security. Given that the target of today’s critiques is the commander-in-chief himself, the stakes are exponentially higher, and the warnings even more dire.
“I’m not sure that a lot of my fellow Americans fully appreciate the fact that there are only two people in the country who can give a lawful order to launch a military strike and start a war, and one of them just resigned to protest the poor judgment of the other,” retired General Barry McCaffrey, former commander of U.S. Southern Command and a decorated combat veteran, said in an interview.
Mattis’ resignation is also notable for his being the last of “Trump’s Generals” and the original “axis of adults” to leave the administration, McCaffrey noted, ushering in the coming era of Trump unchained and unencumbered by their moderating influence.
“We now have an impulsive and ill-informed president who routinely exhibits fantastical thinking on a host of major national security issues, surrounded by a lot of ‘acting’ cabinet officials who have never even been confirmed by the Senate, to include the acting Secretary of Defense, and senior aides who are beleaguered and frequently publicly humiliated by their boss,” said McCaffrey. “And for whatever reason, Trump has repeatedly insisted on meeting in private with the likes of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, and refusing afterwards to share notes or even talking points with his own top aides. So you have a rogue President of the United States, and we as a country are actually in serious danger.”
Not since the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a retired general, did senior military officers wield as much influence at the top levels of an administration as in President Trump’s first two years. As a former four-star Marine Corps general, Mattis formed a nexus of power with three other generals: White House Chief of Staff and fellow retired Marine four-star John Kelly; National Security Adviser and active-duty Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster; and Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The generals, along with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were dubbed the “axis of adults” early in Trump’s term, steering an inexperienced commander-in-chief through the thickets of geopolitics, and smoothing the rough edges of an “America First” foreign policy that allies widely interpret as a fig leaf for naked nationalism and protectionism.
In the first 18 months of the administration “Trump’s Generals” won important policy debates, and successfully acted as guardrails blocking some of the president’s most reckless moves.
Early on Mattis successfully pushed back on Trump’s endorsement of torture, for instance, and he purposely slow-rolled the president’s wish for a self-aggrandizing military parade in Washington, D.C. When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed a U.S. red line by using chemical weapons on civilians in April 2017, Trump reportedly ordered Mattis to assassinate Assad and “kill the fucking lot of them,” according to Bob Woodward’s book Fear. Mattis is said to have told Trump that he would “get right on it,” before hanging up the phone and telling an aide, “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” The more limited missile strikes the Pentagon launched to enforce the red line won bipartisan support in Congress.
Mattis also secured a badly needed increase in the defense budget, and his 2017 National Defense Strategy started an overdue reorientation of the U.S. military towards great power competition with potential adversaries such as Russia and China. He won greater authority for U.S. field commanders leading the fight against ISIS. In that first year the generals also steered a reluctant commander-in-chief towards a mini-surge of roughly 4,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to recapture momentum from an ascendant Taliban.
In the summer of 2017 the “axis of adults” also successfully talked Trump down the escalation ladder after he threatened to unleash “fire and fury…the likes of which the world has never seen” on North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons and missile tests. Throughout their tenures Mattis and Tillerson, who formed a close bond over near weekly breakfasts, also engaged in constant clean-up duty in the aftermath of Trump’s compulsive bullying of allies.
At a 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, for instance, I watched Mattis try and soothe nervous allies in Asia by implying, without saying it outright, that America had learned the cost of isolationism in World War II, and would not forfeit the mantle of democratic leadership in a fit of Trumpian “us first” nationalism. “Even for all the frustrations that are felt in America right now and the sense that at times we carry an inordinate burden, that sense of engagement with the world is still deeply rooted in the American psyche,” Mattis insisted, before paraphrasing Winston Churchill to explain Washington’s wavering commitment to allies. “Bear with us, once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”
Yet over time Trump grew progressively more frustrated by the restraining influence and internationalist instincts of his “axis of adults.” He took Pentagon officials by surprise by tweeting out a ban on transgender people from serving in the military, a move which reportedly “appalled” a vacationing Mattis. In May of 2018, Trump rejected the advice of his generals and top national security aides in moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, essentially ending the United States’ venerable role as mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That same month Trump unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal over the strong objections of close advisers and fellow signatories to the deal–including Great Britain, France and Germany.
At his summer 2018 summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump blindsided Pentagon leaders by cancelling military exercises between U.S. and South Korean forces on the peninsula, a position top U.S. military officers have warned is dangerously eroding the readiness of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula. After meeting privately with Kim, Trump even called the exercises “provocative” and “war games,” adopting the rhetoric of Pyongyang. On the way home Trump tweeted that, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat” from North Korea, relaxing the pressure on other nations to strictly enforce U.N. sanctions on the “Hermit Kingdom” over its nuclear program.
Trump followed that summit with an extraordinary burst of disruptive diplomacy during a single week overseas in July 2018, during which he publicly upbraided close allies, threw a NATO Summit in Brussels into disarray, and shattered diplomatic protocol by criticizing his host British Prime Minister Theresa May while visiting Great Britain and cheerleading for “Brexit.”
Trump then traveled to Helsinki where, in a baffling performance, he met privately with Vladimir Putin, confiscated his interpreter’s notes after the meeting, and then publicly gave the Russian president’s denials of election interference equal weight to the conclusion of his own intelligence agencies. In a post-summit interview, Trump even suggested that the United States might be reluctant to come to the defense of new NATO ally Montenegro, whose “aggressive” people could start “World War III,” mouthing the talking points of Putin and casting doubt over NATO’s bedrock commitment of collective defense.
The performances in Brussels and Helsinki highlighted a fundamental point driven home in Mattis’ resignation letter: Trump embraces a worldview that often aligns him closer to American adversaries than its closest allies. “Helsinki just added to enormous questions surrounding President Trump’s relationship with Putin and his outlook on Russia more generally, elements of which just seem inexplicable and are very concerning from a national security point of view,” said a former very senior intelligence official, speaking on background.
Secretary Mattis tried to counter Trump’s favoritism towards Russia, said this former official, by supporting policies like the deployment of more U.S. and NATO forces to Eastern Europe, and the provision of anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainian armed forces. “But it was clear that Mattis harbored major concerns about Trump and Russia.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns described watching Trump at the NATO and Helsinki Summits last summer as nothing less than “Orwellian.” “President Trump continues to consistently tell the American people that NATO allies are bad, and that Putin is OK, which turns truth on its head,” said Burns, currently heading up the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Burns recently co-authored the Kennedy School report “NATO at Seventy: An Alliance in Crisis,” in which the authors argue that NATO’s core challenge is the lack of principled American leadership for the first time in its history.
“What really leaps out at me in my discussions with European officials is their belief that Trump no longer supports a democratic future for Europe, but rather embraces these right-wing, pro-Russian populist movements,” said Burns. “He has thus reversed American policy by consistently picking fights with democratic allies, while cozying up to autocrats like Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.”
As Trump has become emboldened to reject the advice of his top national security aides over the past year, he has increasingly indulged his strong instinct to politicize nonpartisan institutions such as the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement communities. He routinely uses U.S. troops as convenient backdrops for campaign style speeches in which he excoriates Democrats to cheers from the crowd, including during a Christmas 2018 visit to troops in Iraq, after which Trump signed “Make America Great Again” campaign hats. Trump’s order to deploy active-duty U.S. troops to the southern border to supposedly repel a ragtag caravan of a few hundred immigrants and asylum seekers in the midst of a heated mid-term election campaign was rightly viewed in senior military circles as a naked political stunt, one which some officials close to Mattis suspect foreshadowed his resignation.
Uniformed leaders know that the U.S. military’s position as far and away the most respected institution in America is founded on its nonpartisan status and ethos, and they see that tradition being steadily eroded by the commander-in-chief’s frequent attempts to expropriate the military as one more cudgel in hyper-partisan battles with his political opponents. Historically that is a step on the road to autocracy, wherein the military becomes loyal to the autocrat it serves rather than the Constitution and rule of law the U.S. military is pledged to defend.
Retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who formerly commanded all U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan and later served there as U.S. ambassador says, “I worry that President Trump is eroding the boundaries between his role as Commander in Chief and Politician in Chief. Presidents wear many hats, and it is not unusual for them to use the military as a prop to burnish their image,” he wrote me in an email. “But criticizing the political opposition at a visit with the troops–when the troops are forbidden by law to engage in politics–is a dangerous path to walk down. Soldiers assimilate the norm of staying out of politics through rules, education, and example–the norm is not acquired simply by putting on a uniform."
When Trump broke with decades of tradition last summer and revoked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, a frequent critic, many senior intelligence and military officials saw it as further evidence that Trump was politicizing dissent in national security circles and abusing the powers of the presidency to stifle free speech. Thirteen former intelligence chiefs signed a statement decrying Trump’s actions as an “ill-considered” and “unprecedented” assault on free speech, including former CIA directors General David Petraeus, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Michael Hayden, Porter Goss, George Tenet and William Webster.
Retired Admiral William McRaven, the former commander of U.S. Joint Special Operations Command who oversaw the Navy SEAL Team raid in Pakistan that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, wrote to Trump asking for his own security clearance to be revoked so he could join the list of critics who have spoken up against his presidency.
“Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation,” McRaven wrote to Trump in a letter published in The Washington Post. “If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken.”
When asked about the scathing critique by a hero of the Bin Laden raid in a Fox News interview, Trump responded in the only vernacular he understands, falsely dismissing McRaven as a partisan “Hillary Clinton fan” and an “Obama-backer.”
As he became increasingly comfortable rejecting the advice of his generals and top officials, Trump also grew more impatient with their attempts to moderate his instincts and impulses. Tillerson was the first to go in March 2018, fired in a humiliating tweet while still on a diplomatic mission in Africa.
On his time in Trump world, Tillerson described for CBS This Morning the challenge of transitioning from the “disciplined, highly process-oriented” world of ExxonMobil to work for a president “who is pretty undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe,” Tillerson said.
Frequently Tillerson said he would respond to Trump orders by replying, “Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.” Trump’s response to the interview was to call his former Secretary of State and ExxonMobil chief “dumb as a rock.”
Days after firing Tillerson, Trump surprised his own White House staff by also firing National Security Adviser McMaster, complaining that the general’s briefings were too long and structured. Before entering the Trump White House the warrior-scholar was best known for authoring the seminal book Dereliction of Duty, a critique of generals who didn’t speak honestly enough to their civilian bosses during the Vietnam War, and he had built a reputation on speaking truth to power.
As is so often the case in the Trump era, that reputation was badly sullied during his White House tenure when the still active-duty Lt. Gen. McMaster played the dutiful soldier and tried to defend the indefensible: Trump’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the Oval Office the day after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The director’s dismissal had come in part because of the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia that Trump terms a “witch hunt.” When news quickly broke that Trump had shared highly classified intelligence with the Russians, McMaster was sent out to defend the action to the press. As a clearly uncomfortable McMaster dutifully walked out to the White House lawn to issue a brief statement calling the story “false,” he unexpectedly ran into a group of reporters in the West Wing.
“This is the last place in the world I wanted to be,” McMaster confessed. No one who witnessed his tenure as national security adviser has reason to doubt that was a pretty good summation of his time in the White House.
Last December, Trump announced that Chief of Staff and retired General John Kelly would also be leaving by the end of the year. In an exit interview with The Los Angeles Times, Kelly defended his own rocky tenure by arguing that he would ultimately be judged by what Trump refrained from doing during Kelly’s tenure as chief of staff, without specifying the paths that were not taken. According to Bob Woodward writing in Fear, Kelly once described the president as an “idiot” who has “gone off the rails,” the White House as “Crazytown,” and his time as the president’s right hand man as “the worst job I’ve ever had.” Kelly later denied calling the president an “idiot.”
Mattis’ resignation was also probably foreshadowed with the September 2018 publication of Fear, in which Woodward describes Mattis leaving a meeting with Trump on the nuclear standoff with North Korea exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president “acted like–and had the understanding of–a ‘fifth- or sixth- grader.’” Mattis denied the account, but the die was probably cast. In an interview in October, Trump branded Mattis with an ominous expletive, calling him “sort of a Democrat.”
In retrospect, the fatal flaw in the “axis of adults” narrative was the assumption that Trump himself was willing and able to change fundamentally.
If the generals and other “adults” among his close advisers could just establish a disciplined decision-making process, the thinking went, then surely the best arguments and policies would win most of the time.
In the end, Trump proved that his impulses and the chaos that inevitably ensues from them cannot be governed, and that dynamic is only likely to get worse now that the generals have left the building and the White House increasingly mirrors the dysfunction of the administration’s very earliest days.
“Usually administrations get better as team members get more familiar with each other and more seasoned, but there doesn’t seem to be a learning curve with this administration, and we may already have seen the high water mark in terms of policy making and interagency coordination,” said Peter Feaver, a former National Security Council staffer in both the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations, who is currently director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. “And with President Trump constantly tweeting out reckless policy decisions with no interagency vetting or process, he will continue to cut the legs out from under his top officials and make them look foolish. It’s going to be very hard to get good and really qualified people to sign up for that kind of work environment. It’s just a hell of a way to run a railroad.”
John Nagl is the former president of the Center for a New American Security, and a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “For Trump’s first two years he had in close proximity advisers who had devoted their lives to the security of the United States, were loyal to the constitution and U.S. institutions rather than to Trump personally, and who provided a break on the president’s worst impulses. And Trump punished them all for it,” he said in an interview. “Now the generals are gone, and they are being replaced by ‘yes men’ and ideologues who have no conception of the cost of war or the worth of allies. I find that terrifying.”
As he heads into the third-year stretch before next year’s reelection campaign, Trump is a decider-in-chief in full bloom, confident in the righteousness of his own counsel and instincts, or in Trump’s own recent words, “I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else's brain can ever tell me."
Trump presumably has taken to heart former Defense Secretary Mattis’ observation that he has the right to top advisers whose views are better aligned with his own, hiring former congressmen Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pompeo, both of whom came out of the Tea Party movement, as his acting White House chief of staff and secretary of state, respectively. Along with lifelong nationalist and uber-hawk John Bolton as National Security Adviser, Trump indeed now has a national security team more reflective of his disruptive, nationalistic worldview.
For his part Mulvaney has promised to manage down in terms of the White House Staff, and not up, reportedly determined to let “Trump be Trump.” The number of times the statements of top national security officials have recently been contradicted by Trump’s tweets and proclamations suggests that they are still subject to the same feckless and haphazard decision-making emanating from the Oval Office.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive with no military and little government experience, recently attempted to explain the administration’s evolving Syria strategy during a brief of U.S. lawmakers on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February. His explanations reportedly prompted Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., of the Senate Armed Services Committee to uncork a torrent of expletives and declare himself Shanahan’s “adversary.”
That undisciplined decision making on Syria has been very much on the mind of retired Marine Corps General John Allen, former commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, and currently president of the Brookings Institution. Writing of the Mattis resignation with veteran Brookings national security analyst Michael O’Hanlon, Allen called the Syria decision “capricious,” and “impulsive” and he worries that more may be on the way.
“What if, next time, the issue is a possible preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear forces, or a violent naval confrontation with China, or a showdown with Russia over a Baltic nation, where the stakes would be even higher,” Allen and O’Hanlon wrote in the article “Learning from Trump’s Syria Debacle.”
“The point John and I were trying to make was that while the Syria decision was important and very consequential for our allies in the anti-ISIS fight, it is not a top-tier U.S. national security issue,” O’Hanlon told me. “We wanted to make a strong statement before President Trump faces even more consequential decisions, and makes even worse mistakes because he fails to consult with or simply ignores his expert advisers.”
As it happens Trump faced just such a profoundly consequential decision point at the end of February when he held his second summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Trump was under pressure to come away with a more substantive agreement than their first meeting produced, which was mainly vague pledges on denuclearization that lacked even an agreed upon definition of what that actually means. Instead the February summit ended in confusion and recriminations, with Trump walking away after Kim refused to accept his grand bargain of complete denuclearization for a lifting of sanctions.
While a long line of U.S. presidents have failed to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, what worries many experts is the lack of preparation and impulsiveness in Trump’s mano-a-mano diplomacy. As was the case at the last summit, for instance, the two leaders met privately with no aides or note-takers present, which is exactly how the North Korean dictator prefers it.
The biggest “wild card” in the summit was the possibility that Trump would once again threaten to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, or even announce a pullout now that Defense Secretary Mattis is not around to dissuade him. While that didn’t happen during this summit, many experts remain concerned it still might be offered as a future bargaining chip given Trump’s oft-stated desire to bring the troops home, and his view that allies habitually take advantage of the United States.
“A U.S. troop reduction or withdrawal would be a very big blow to South Korea and Japan, but Kim Jong Un knows that Trump is the only American president in history who might be willing to put our alliances on the negotiating table,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former senior Korea analyst at the CIA, and currently the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s why Kim keeps writing Trump love letters.”
The recent Congressional testimony by U.S. intelligence chiefs assessing the major threats confronting the country suggests that the yawning disconnect between Trump’s worldview and reality as perceived by the intelligence experts is not a fluke, but rather a permanent fixture of this presidency. After Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel contradicted the president’s optimism on North Korea’s willingness to surrender its nuclear weapons, and about the defeat of ISIS, Trump invited them to the White House woodshed and then blamed the entire misunderstanding on “fake news,” insisting the intelligence chiefs were “misquoted” and “taken out of context” even though the public testimony was there for all to see.
“The relationship between President Trump and the Intelligence Community is as bad as I’ve ever seen, and it’s not going to get any better because the problem is fundamentally one of truth,” said Paul Pillar, a former career CIA analyst and national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. “The Intelligence Community has worked hard to adapt to his idiosyncrasies by dumbing down intelligence briefings, and mentioning him personally as frequently as possible in briefings to appeal to his obvious narcissism, but Trump is simply unwilling to ingest information from sources other than Fox News and a few others he relies on. And I don’t see that problem getting any better, because the president has shown no learning curve in terms of his willingness to absorb inconvenient truths.”
Meanwhile, the recent Munich Security Conference also underscored Mattis’ concerns that Trump’s rough handling and bullying of allies was inflicting real and potentially lasting damage on our bedrock alliances. Last month the New York Times reported that several times over the course of 2018, Trump privately told top aides that he actually wanted to withdraw the United States from NATO. In Munich, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hectored European allies for not joining the United States in tearing up the Iran nuclear deal, while the Europeans stood fast behind new financing mechanisms designed to work around U.S. sanctions and hedge against Trump administration bullying.
This month it was reported that the White House plans to transform America’s alliances into a protection racket with a “cost plus 50” plan that would require allies to pay 150 percent of the cost of hosting U.S. troops, with a good behavior discount for those countries willing to take their marching orders from Washington, D.C.
“If you had told me that in just two years the Trump administration could convince our closest allies and friends that the United States was not the champion and leader of the liberal, international order, but rather a threat and danger to it, I wouldn’t have believed it. But that’s the conclusion the Europeans have clearly come to,” said Kori Schake, a former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration, and currently the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “The question that dominated the Munich Conference was whether the United States would once again lead the Western democracies after Trump is gone, or whether the Europeans need to protect themselves further against a disruptive America.”
Finally, there are reports that sometime in the coming weeks Special Counsel Robert Mueller will likely complete his investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, and whether the Trump campaign actually colluded in that foreign sabotage of our democratic process. Mueller may also reveal whether or not there is evidence that Trump or the White House attempted to obstruct the investigation.
Many national security experts hope the Mueller report clears up the enduring mystery behind Team Trump’s secret and profligate interactions with Russian officials and agents, with a CNN analysis of public records finding that at least 12 Trump associates had contacts with Russians during the campaign and transition, with at least 51 individual communications and 19 face-to-face interactions with Russians or Kremlin-linked figures.
Whatever clarity the Mueller report provides may come at the cost of a constitutional crisis, however, with profoundly dangerous implications for the nation’s security. At a similar culminating moment in the Watergate investigation, for instance, then Defense Secretary James Schlesinger admitted to taking the extraordinary, extra-constitutional step of telling senior U.S. military leaders to ignore orders from an embattled and increasingly paranoid President Richard Nixon–including a potential nuclear launch order–unless Schlesinger had signed off on them first.
“From the beginning there has been a cloud of distrust hanging over the Trump White House because of the Russian question, and we’re about to finally get some answers,” said former Defense Secretary Bill Cohen in our interview. “For instance, why has Trump adopted an agenda that exactly replicates Vladimir Putin’s bucket list, including sowing dissension and confusion in the American political system, discrediting the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities, attacking the free media as ‘fake news,’ weakening the European Union by championing ‘Brexit,’ undermining the NATO alliance, and pulling U.S. forces out of Syria?
"What was behind Trump’s obscene performance in Helsinki, where he tore up the interpreter’s notes of his private meeting with Putin and then took a knee before the Russian leader and publicly accepted his lies, while rejecting the truth of his own intelligence community?
"There is an elephant standing in America’s living room right now staring us in the face: the President of the United States may well be compromised by the Russians, which I truly believe is the case. And he is unfit to serve.”