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President Trump has left us so numbed by his deceit and dishonor that it’s hard for anything said by or about him to shock us. Even so, the remarks this past weekend by two of his top Cabinet officers should sound the alarm bells louder than usual.
On Fox News on Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked about a U.N. committee’s recent warning about racism in America, which criticized Trump’s wavering attitude toward the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia. Tillerson replied, “I don’t think anyone doubts the American people’s values,” including those touting “equal treatment of people the world over.” But when asked whether Trump shared those values, he replied, “The president speaks for himself.”
Around the same time, a recent video emerged on Facebook of Secretary of Defense James Mattis telling a small group of American troops, “You’re a great example of our country right now.” He went on, “Our country, right now, it’s got problems that we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”
Mattis added that the United States has “two powers” in facing the rest of the world: inspiration and intimidation. “The power of inspiration—we’ll get the power of inspiration back. We’ve got the power of intimidation, and that’s you, if someone wants to screw with our families, our country and our allies.”
Tillerson’s statement, though a direct rebuke of Trump, was the less concerning of the two. It’s hard to recall a more dispirited Cabinet secretary than Tillerson right now. Isolated from the White House, bereft of staff (because Trump has refused to nominate any under- or assistant secretaries), and either incompetent or uninterested in the tasks at hand, he shuffles through his petty pace, day to day, until his inevitable departure.
Mattis’ remarks were far more damning and, because of that, disturbing. His statement was neither rehearsed nor meant to be public. He ambled over to a small group of service members on a base that he was visiting, and his remarks were captured on a phone camera, which someone was holding discreetly at waist level. The exact date and location of the conversation is unknown but it likely took place during Mattis’ trip to Jordan, Turkey, and Ukraine last week. What he said, more potent than it might seem at first glance, is worth unpacking.
“You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”
I suppose that, if asked to explain himself, Mattis could say that he was addressing troubles and tensions in the country in general, quite apart from anything the president had said or provoked. But in the wake of Charlottesville, only a dolt would believe that explanation. The target was clearly Trump, and if you don’t accept that, there was this:
“The power of inspiration—we’ll get the power of inspiration back.”
Mattis has referred to these “two powers” in many public forums before. In this instance, he says that we still have the power of intimidation (“that’s you,” he told the troops), but we’ve lost the power of inspiration for the moment (“we’ll get [that] back”). The only way to interpret this is that Mattis was saying the president—who is usually the one who embodies this power through words, deeds, or preferably both—has through his words and deeds surrendered this power.
Here, then, was the secretary of defense—whose credibility and authority rest largely on his combat valor as a recently retired Marine four-star general—all but acknowledging to the servicemen and women he oversees that the country they serve is broken and that the commander in chief, whose lawful orders they have sworn to obey, has helped break it.
So where does that leave Mattis himself? On the one hand, many Americans are rightly thankful that someone of Mattis’ experience and caliber is where he is, so that he might ward off catastrophe if Trump ever faces a foreign crisis that’s not of his own making.
On the other hand, this isn’t quite how American democracy is supposed to work. There’s a reason the Founding Fathers stressed the need for civilian control of the military. There’s a reason the founding documents of the Defense Department, created just 70 years ago, re-emphasized the principle. It’s customary for the armed forces to serve as the bulwark against foreign enemies; it’s something unusual, and disconcerting, for them to do so against the whims and outbursts of the country’s elected commander in chief.
We’ve been down a similar road before. In the summer of 1974, as President Nixon raged and ranted in drunken bouts of anger and paranoia (he would be forced to resign, under pressures of likely impeachment, in August), then–Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger told the then–chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. George Brown, to consult with him before executing any unusual orders from the White House.
Things never came to that crossroad. If they had, and if Brown had obeyed Schlesinger instead of Nixon, that would have amounted to an act of grave insubordination, even a coup d’etat—though an ultimately patriotic one.
We haven’t reached anywhere near that crossroad today, though one can imagine Mattis mulling what he might do if an increasingly embattled President Trump issued an unusual order of his own.
“You just hold the line,” Mattis told the troops—hang on to your toughness and your values—until things back home straighten out. Mattis must be telling himself to “hold the line” every day. The question is how far that line extends and how far he would go to hold it.
Again, better that Mattis is there to advise and possibly contain Trump in a moment of dire crisis. But there is a danger in his words. It’s worth repeating the preface to Mattis’ “hold the line” imperative: “You’re a great example of our country right now. Our country, right now, it’s got problems that we don’t have in the military.”
Isaiah Wilson, a retired U.S. Army colonel, former scholar in civil-military relations at the U.S. Military Academy, and now a fellow at New America, thinks that Mattis stopped short of crossing any lines in the president’s authority because he didn’t rebuke Trump directly. However, Wilson is troubled by this particular passage in Mattis’ pep talk. The secretary of defense seemed to be telling his troops “that they are different and separate from—and morally better than—the nation itself,” Wilson told me on Monday. “This is a thin, dangerous line.” In the end, Wilson said, “this arrogant sense of professional self as ‘better than the public we serve’ will prove our undoing.” It could also erode “the vital and necessary trust that we now place—and must have—in our military. Once this kind of trust-bond is lost, it is hard, if not impossible, to recover. You can’t ‘surge’ trust.”
It’s not entirely Mattis’ fault that he has placed himself and the troops in this position. My guess is he’d rather not be anywhere near any awkward constitutional lines. By any measure, it would be good if we had an attorney general or secretary of state with the authority, integrity, and independence to play this sort of protective role. But we don’t. Mattis is what’s left as a potential bulwark to catastrophe, and this is, at once, assuring and disturbing.
Meanwhile, the public servants who are in a position to do something about this—not least the Republican leaders of Congress—sit on their hands. Many of them know that their president is morally bankrupt, congenitally dishonest, brazenly corrupt, and when it comes to the highest duties of his office way in over his head. Yet, whether out of party loyalty, fear, or short-term ideological interest, they do nothing. The annals of history are crammed with tales of political and civic leaders who watch their nations sink slowly or plunge swiftly into decay or destruction, yet avoid action—not so much sleepwalking into disaster but walking wakefully, with eyes wide open. We may be witnessing something like that in real time now.