War Stories

Jim Mattis’ Tightrope

Mattis has an excuse not to slam the president. What about the dozens, hundreds, of other former Trump administration officials?

James Mattis at the White House on Sept. 3, 2017.
James Mattis at the White House on Sept. 3, 2017.
Chris Kleponis - Pool/Getty Images

After nearly nine months of silence since he resigned in protest as secretary of defense, Jim Mattis is hurling darts at his former boss, President Donald Trump—jabbing at his policies, character, and style of leadership.

Not that Mattis is mentioning Trump by name, much less challenging his suitability as commander in chief. No, that would violate the military’s credo to remain apolitical. “If you leave an administration, you owe some silence,” he told Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of the Atlantic. He said he wants those entrusted to keep us secure to “carry out their duties without me adding my criticism to the cacophony that is right now so poisonous.”

Yet by saying anything at all, Mattis is walking right up to the red line—some would say that he’s crossed it by acknowledging that he has criticisms, a point the retired general all but concedes when he tells Goldberg that his period of silence is “not eternal. It’s not going to be forever.”

Finally, there is the additional awkwardness that Mattis is speaking out in the context of selling his new book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, which is excerpted in the Wall Street Journal and for which he’s about to embark on a nationwide tour (beginning on its publication date, Sept. 3, with a Q&A at the Council on Foreign Relations).

Mattis’ strategic straddling raises serious questions about the dual obligations of those who leave office over not only disagreements about the president’s policies but also deep concerns about the direction in which he’s taking the country.

In fairness, Mattis has a proper case for not rousing an overt campaign against Trump. Ever since Gen. Douglas MacArthur publicly tried to undermine President Harry Truman’s policies during the Korean War (leading Truman to relieve the popular combat hero of his duties), the U.S. military services—in their manuals, academies, and training drills—have drummed into recruits, officers, and commanders the firm dictum that they must accede to civilian leadership and stay out of politics.

We should all be thankful for this drumming. It is never good for democracy to be saved by a Man on a White Horse. Mattis—a bookish bachelor and charismatic combat commander, widely venerated as one of the few “grown-ups in the room” during his two years in the Trump administration—could step into that role, if he were so inclined. Lucky for us, he seems sensitive to the dangers of even appearing to saddle up. His ambivalence about criticizing the president probably stems from genuine anguish about those dual obligations—to the civilian commander and to constitutional principles.

But what of the others who have left Trumpworld no less leery of the dangers that this sitting president poses? Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—who reportedly referred to Trump as “a fucking moron” (and didn’t deny the report when directly asked about it)—has pledged no allegiance to a post-MacArthur code of silence, having never served in the military. Where’s his warning to the citizenry?

Will Dan Coats, the former director of national intelligence, who was recently fired by Trump for telling too many uncomfortable truths, soon sound the alarm? (He stepped down from the job on Aug. 15.) Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser for Trump’s first year in office, hasn’t warned of Trump’s financial illiteracy or the dangers it poses to our well-being, except for spilling the beans as a source in Bob Woodward’s bestselling book Fear: Trump in the White House.

Fiona Hill, senior Russia specialist on the National Security Council; Derek Harvey, the NSC’s senior director for Middle East affairs; countless officials and diplomats in the State Department (60 percent of them, as of a year and a half ago)—many of them could tell distressing stories about the man with his finger on the button. Why don’t they?

Speaking of the button: In 2017, when Bob Corker was Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he caused a stir by likening the White House to an “adult day care center” and worrying that Trump’s reckless threats toward other countries were paving a “path to World War III.” Toward the end of the year, he got “riled up” (as he put it to one of his staffers) upon discovering that the president had “the power to basically destroy the world.” He called hearings to discuss the dangers—the first congressional hearings on the subject in 41 years. The following year, Corker decided not to run for reelection. He’s been out of the Senate for eight months now. Why hasn’t he said anything that might get his fellow citizens “riled up”?

Bethany Milton recently wrote a New York Times op-ed on why Trump’s anti-immigration policies spurred her to resign from the State Department after serving as a consular officer for 11 years. Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s former (very brief) press spokesman, recently came out against his old boss, calling him a “presidential monster” who’s “got to be defeated.” But, really: Is this the entire roster of the outspoken—one honorable but previously anonymous bureaucrat and one colorfully profane financier?

In 1975, Edward Weisband wrote a book called Resignation in Protest: Political and Ethical Choices Between Loyalty to Team and Loyalty to Conscience in American Public Life. He contrasted American and British politics, noting that resignations in protest were rare in the former, routine in the latter. The reason, he explained, was that the political systems generated different mechanisms for loyalty. In Britain, the government consisted mainly of parliamentarians who could return to the back benches or some party position if they quit. Whereas, in the United States, senior officials tended to owe their power (and whatever luster might linger afterward) to the president.

Some of those who have resigned from the Trump administration are doing business with the government in some capacity and don’t want to incur the president’s wrath. Many others want to leave open the option of returning to government after Trump’s tenure is done—and don’t want some potential future boss to suspect they might not be team players, that they might place their own agendas above that of the administration.

Meanwhile, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of recently departed officials are walking among us, intimately aware of the dangers posed by this president, some of them possibly pondering whether to speak out. Mattis has chosen his brand of tightrope. Some, among his former colleagues and brother officers, think he’s gone over the line; others want him to broaden the line and go further still with his criticism; many wonder why he got up on the tightrope to begin with if he wasn’t going to walk the full distance. Still, maybe he’ll inspire others, especially those who don’t face the dilemmas that come with wearing the uniform, to get up and say something themselves.