United States President Donald Trump has caused no shortage of controversy in his dealings with the senior members of his cabinet. However, the one who has escaped any true controversy in their role is Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Mattis is a modern Patton to America’s soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. There have only been a handful of senior generals of Mattis’ rank that have amassed the kind of Caesar-esque following with the rank and file troops. His brash candor and combat intelligence propelled him from command of the 7th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan and 1st Marine Division in Iraq to Head of US Central Command (CentCom). He retired from this post in the military in 2013 as a Four Star General in the Marine Corps. After leaving active service, he worked for FWA Consulting, and served as a member of the Board for General Dynamics, Theranos, and the non-profit Spirit of America. He is possibly the most publicly revered General of the post 9-11 era. This persona is a great advantage to president Trump, as it mitigates political opposition to the Secretary of Defense’s actions.
General Mattis was confirmed to the position of Secretary of Defense by an overwhelming 98-1 vote. He made some comments in the past that drew backlash, but none enough to permanently tarnish his reputation. He is so universally liked among Democrats and Republicans that he was granted a special waiver to serve as Secretary of Defense because Federal law states that active duty military personnel must be retired from service for 7 years before they can serve in a civilian capacity. This rule was changed in 2007 from the previous 10 years, and originated 65 years ago when General George Marshall served as President Truman’s Secretary of State, and then Secretary of Defense.
Mattis’ exceptional status extends farther than his military career, and seems to have manifested itself in his role as Secretary of Defense because President Trump has refrained from attacking him by tweetstorm as he has with his other cabinet members when they disagree with him. This is notable because Mattis has disagreed with Trump on many issues publicly, such as the transgender ban, North Korea, and the Iran nuclear deal.
When Trump announced his intention to place a ban on transgender individuals joining the military, Mattis followed the President’s orders and created a council of experts to investigate what to do with regard to the thousands of transgender servicemen and women currently serving. Mattis’ comments from the past, however, suggest that he does not care about a person’s orientation or gender as long as they are an effective soldier. He has repeatedly said he does not care what two consenting adults wish to do, and that while he earlier questioned female service members in combat, he led hundreds of female Marines under his command in 2003 that he tasked with combat roles.
In regard to North Korea, and other potential crisis zones, Mattis has always pointed to diplomacy as the best first-line method for maintaining and applying America’s power abroad. He was quoted saying during testimony to the Senate, ‘If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.’ Trump’s position on this has been markedly different, speaking with fire and brimstone rhetoric, and calling Kim Jong Un, ‘rocket man.’ This penchant for diplomacy first does not make Mattis less likely to engage the military, however; he doesn’t shy away from saying that North Korea would be completely destroyed militarily if they were to attack first.
In the face of the deadline to recertify the Iran nuclear deal that Trump faced in October, Mattis spoke of the deal in very different words to those of Trump. Mattis is a well established hawk when dealing with Iran but he spoke about about the benefits of the deal, and suggested that Trump reconsider recertification.
By all indications, Mattis will perform and carry out the wishes of the President because of his sense of duty, not because he necessarily agrees with him. When and if this will come to a head is hard to tell, because Mattis has said time and time again that his number one priority is to maintain the utmost lethality of the American military.
The fact that Mattis has publicly differed in opinion with Trump is not unlike other members of Trump’s cabinet such as Secretary of State Tillerson and Attorney General Sessions, but Trump seems shy of attacking Mattis over twitter where he is not with others. This suggests Trump has some special reverence for Mattis, or that he recognizes the political importance Mattis represents.
Some of this lack of conflict between the two can be attributed to the fact that Mattis is doing his best to keep the Pentagon increasing out of politics and the public eye by reducing the unnecessary connections between the Defense Department and White House. In addition to this, Mattis’ personality lends him to be out of the limelight as much as possible, and as long as the Defense Department is functioning well, Trump has less reason to intervene.
Trump’s lack of disrespect towards Mattis seems to also stem from a reverence toward military knowledge, with many generals in his close circle of advisors. The political purpose of Mattis’s appointment cannot be overlooked either. Trump’s base tends to be very pro-military and many are veterans or active duty soldiers; it serves Trump’s best interest to defer to Mattis on issues of Defense and capitalize on his popularity.
Mattis and Trump’s relationship would not be unusual by the standard of most other administrations, but in Trump’s administration, the lack of public conflict is uncharacteristic. Many people believed that when Trump appointed Mattis, Mattis would use his situation to temper the President’s positions and protect the military from Trump’s unpredictable politics. Whether Mattis sees that as part of his mission at the Pentagon is yet to truly be seen, as nothing the President has directly asked him to do so far seems to be completely at odds with his philosophy. The difference in opinion between the two is evident, but the lack of real conflict is a good sign for the country, no matter the reason. Whether you agree with Mattis’ harsh rhetoric and intense attitude or not; a level headed Defense Secretary with as much combat knowledge and reverence for diplomacy as he has should be more than welcomed in the current global climate.