Decoding the Mystery of Jim Mattis

Listen to this episode

S1: When you leave an administration or a government over matters of policy.

S2: You state what they are what those matters are. I did so with the president. He was straightforward with me. I was straightforward with him. And then you owe a period of silence as the president the secretary of state factory defense carry on the duty of preserving and protecting this country. And I’m not going to shit now on what I consider to be the the cheap seats having just left the administration and Commander make political assessment.

S3: Before it was the axis of adults. It was Kelly Meadows Tillerson and H.R. they kept the president for doing all these crazy things. All those guys are completely gone. Our foreign policy is exactly the same.

S4: The president’s entitled to the staff that he was and at any moment if this bill is not passed. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans in the Senate and the president will have hell.

S1: To pay.

S5: Hello and welcome to Trump cast. I’m Virginia Heffernan. Last week there were ice checkpoints on Route 89 right outside my hometown of Hanover New Hampshire. Yes Border Patrol checking cars at random. Ninety five miles from any international border and ninety five miles since that’s just within the purview as the crow flies of Border Patrol which is allowed apparently to conduct searches and shake people down within 100 miles of the border. So at ninety five they get that licked their chops rabid ness and they get to stop cars asking Poppy ETA like the S S and they search the cars. This is armed man with big dogs of anyone whose looks they don’t like and yeah you guessed it. That means New Hampshirites with. How do you say New Hampshire white faces. They get waved by and Guatemalan brown faces another Latin next folk get stopped searched stripped of belongings hazed and in a few cases deported. Some of this happened during the time that Dartmouth international students arrived on campus a few miles from the checkpoint. Now these guys at ICE had been harassing drivers on 89 all summer. They’d made something like 19 arrests and at the time some tried to say it was a coincidence that the Dartmouth students were arriving then. Hanover it happens is outside the 100 mile per view. In any case terrifying people. Which is what these checkpoints did is a move that reverberates all the way through these communities and all of us knew that Canadian journalists coming to the US for short assignments had already been turned away from U.S. border states. So yeah the racist police state has come to America’s ninth colony. Today my guest is Susan Glasser. She founded Politico and is a staff writer at The New Yorker where she writes a weekly column on life in Trump’s Washington. Susan is also a tonic both bracing and soothing whenever she talks or writes I count on her for clarity for seeing around corners for this foxy which she has and for keeping her priorities straight. Welcome back to trump card. Susan thank you so much for having me.

S6: One of the sort of types of people that we look to in our troubled times are people who’ve managed to get out of the Trump administration and maybe even turn on him and have something to say. You’ve been writing about X administration figure Jim Mattis.

S7: Yeah he really doesn’t want to talk about it yet. So the big takeaway he is just a sphinx to me I cannot read him at all. Please help me. He’s a sphinx by design and in a sort of very calculating way.

S8: To me it’s very interesting people have made the comparison in some sense between Jim Mattis and Bob Mueller and they’re both these pillars of the establishment they’re roughly the same age and they sort of have in a way this sort of very antiquated but almost romantic notion of their own integrity and also the integrity of the institutions that they’ve spent decades representing the FBI in the case of Mueller and the justice system in a case of modest decades inside the US military as a Marine and then the last few years as the civilian defense secretary. And you know they both speak about them in almost mystical terms and I think that’s the thing about Mattis. He offers us this romantic gauzy view that frankly doesn’t really exist of this this a political warrior fraternity and that he’s somehow serving the interests of that by not saying anything about President Trump even though he’s out on book tour which nobody you know if you really know what to say anything you probably don’t go on book tour and appear on every single cable network over and over and over again. Yeah but putting that aside you know he has this idea of this sort of noble fraternity. And by the way I do say fraternity. He’s he’s he’s still clearly very opposed to women in the military but unfortunately it’s really at odds with his willingness and desire even to criticize Barack Obama. Joe Biden George W. Bush which he does quite vociferously both in his book and in all these appearances he’s making to promote it.

S9: He actually has been saying that he knows he’s disappointing people by not slagging off the president. I mean obviously on cable people have interest in the blood sport and they want to hear Mattis from on high. Bad mouth. Trump as a child or you know call him a fucking idiot. Tillerson reportedly did but he’s just during and that also reminds me of.

S8: MUELLER Yes that’s right. It’s very similar right. So you know Mueller says essentially here’s my report. You can read it and I won’t even characterize it in any way. And Mattis says here’s my book read it. Here’s my resignation letter if you want to know what I think about Trump. If you read his resignation letter the word Trump never even appears in. To the president. But that’s it. And even then he never. It’s all written in the passive voice. There’s no even specific actions or decisions of the president. He calls out it’s all just a sort of generic pay into allies in how nations without allies get into trouble. And so you know he’s been called a giant sub treat of Trump but that’s giving him even too much credit. It’s just a really interesting thing I was at this very kind of fancy book party that David Bradley the chairman of the Atlantic magazine had room in his sort of mansion Massachusetts Avenue high. And it was you know a sort of every A-list or you could conceive of in Washington Bob Woodward Andrea Mitchell and you know some of his former colleagues by the way from the Obama administration. The only person who was there from the Trump administration was a fellow exile his fellow former Marine Gen. John Kelly who held court in the corner and also has not said anything publicly about what by all reliable accounts is as a very disdainful view of the president of the United States that he has. And you know so none of these folks believe that they have a duty to the American people that extend to telling them what they learned in their American taxpayer funded service. Yeah inside the Trump administration.

S10: And yet what was so interesting was to watch madness in this crowd. He’s trying to kind of be polished and you know kind of insider me about how he goes about saying essentially no comment. And he makes this joke at the very beginning of his remarks I realize how much I’m disappointing people when I don’t say Let’s go torch the White House. He he said and you know they’re sort of chuckles and and yet then interestingly he almost immediately proceeded to start bashing the Obama administration after saying how is this longstanding tradition not to make political pronouncements. And you know the Obama administration is not some past historical epic generation too right. Right decisions he’s criticizing are decisions that Joe Biden was very much in the middle of. And so it has a very partisan effect because who at this moment in time is very likely to be Donald Trump’s 2020 opponent.

S9: But Joe Biden you know the torching metaphor I’m sorry that I’m not saying torching the White House. He’s not just saying I’m sorry I can’t be more openly critical of Trump or even I can’t talk candidly about Trump. It does seem as though some of these figures who have their doubts about Trump were even more terrified of left wing or fury among the Democrats than they were of Trump. I mean the peril that he poses to national security it’s almost as though there’s a little bit of the if I can. David Brooks Bret Stephens thing as though like they feel like they’ve been trolled by people who want to burn everything down and they’re much more afraid that anti fire or liberal Twitter is coming for them than they are that Trump by say sudden precipitously withdrawing from Syria or doing the things that exactly the opposite of what Mattis recommended in his farewell letter. It is interesting that that’s what rankles with him although here’s here’s the thing I have to say.

S11: So he has a very specific sort of grievance with the Obama administration with Obama who pushed him out of CENTCOM because they viewed him as this incredible Iran hawk and just out of line with the administration. I actually think that Mattis probably agrees with much more of the critique of Trump and his behavior and his policies than some of the Republicans that you’re talking about. I just spent a lot of time months really working on this big profile of Mike Pompeo the secretary of state you’re a New Yorker and I think Pompeo and many of the people in his circle of republicans are exactly what you’re talking about. I think they’re the kind who signed up for Trump and Trump ism by and justifying it because the bigger threat in their view are are Democrats and their world view. I think Manny’s has a particular animus toward the Obama administration but actually it’s probably more a subscriber to a sort of centrists both center left center right worldview. Interesting. OK good to know. Like for example this book party I didn’t put it in the piece but he kind of in this sub tweeting vein he won’t say anything critical of Trump but he volunteers. You know I’d like to say I don’t believe that America is a racist nation. I don’t believe that it’s a misogynist nation. I know it’s hard but I believe that we’ve always managed to go forward as a country not backward and I think even right now we’re going to find a way to go forward. You will never hear that from the Pompei Rose of the world. Yeah. You heap mountains wanted that audience he knew there pissed at him but he also wanted them to know like essentially I’m one of you right. Yeah I’m not racist I’m not misogynist. I don’t condone this.

S6: People who want to torture the White House after they leave and after they were in a position whether with the 25th amendment or something else to actually remove the president and didn’t do it. It would be for him to come out guns blazing would be would also subject him to criticism that it was too little too late. So he’s in a tough position. And we’ve seen this with lots of people I mean Rex Tillerson more or less disappeared. My current obsession is with Rod Rosenstein who in a way like Jim Mattis recently linked to a letter to justify the IGC report on Komi a letter he’d written about Komi about Kobe’s behavior in 2017 saying you know he thought he Komi violated protocols. But the interesting thing about the letter I don’t know if you got a chance to click on it but the letter to Chuck Grassley.

S12: It spent six paragraphs talking about literally File Gate Travel gate the death of Vince Foster Hillary Clinton everything but comet pizza. He’s really riled up on bygone matters or shadowboxing still with Hillary Clinton when Rome seems to be burning.

S11: Well that’s right and that of course is the real thing that journalists and others are pointing out with some of these folks is it’s either an actual national and international crisis or it’s not. Either you believe that Trump is some kind of unique threat to the order or essentially you’re saying he’s just another president. Yeah maybe a you know extreme one in some ways but we can handle him with normal rules. Yeah. It seems to me that Bob Mueller and Jim Mattis are saying regular order must apply here. And a lot of the critics are saying no no. A He uses regular order against the institutions themselves and b he’s a unique kind of a threat to it. It actually does go to your assessment of the nature of what is the Trump problem we’re dealing with.

S9: It’s funny cause in the Rosenstein thing and it’s I’m sorry I’ve just been single mindedly fixated on him. He keeps asserting you know in an effort to maybe self tweet and justify his decision to stand behind bill bars you know declination to indict Trump. He keeps saying kind of some versions of. We must always follow the rules. There are no exceptional circumstances that justify violating the rules. And he seems to have settled on and possibly Moeller seems to have settled on certainly. I don’t know Barr seems more activist obstructionist Rosenstein and Mueller seem a little bit passive about just like I’m going to stick to the rules. That’s all I’ve learned. And you know and there’s something wrong with Comey because he took a small step outside of the rules because he saw extraordinary circumstances. There doesn’t seem to be any room in the Mueller Rosenstein and maybe Mattis worldview for some kind of conscientious objection or even on a minor scale violations of protocol.

S12: We’re not talking about clobbering Trump before he pulls out the troops or whatever. You know something that might have been seen as a kind of heroism and in old days we’re talking about like you know you’re not really supposed to show this memo to the press. But then I did and that wasn’t quite in protocol Toby actually thought that we had a dangerous president obstructing justice which is most people now think.

S7: Well that’s right.

S8: I mean look here the Comey thing is even a different situation than this current book tour by John Adams after all right. We’re not even in the realm of what’s legal and what’s not legal. And a book tour is a completely optional thing. Yeah. Madness. Actually there’s a long tradition of course in American politics. People who quit administrations and you know over policy disagreements over personality disagreement. This is not exactly a new situation in American politics. And you know by cloaking himself in this incredible sort of sanctimonious argument about why he is not going to say anything you know he’s just set up I think an almost impossible standard for himself to meet because a it’s a ridiculous statement the idea that a former defense secretary doesn’t speak out. Well the very last Republican appointed secretary of defense wrote a scathing memoir right in the middle of Obama’s second term. This is Bob Gates and he felt no compunction whatsoever I should note mostly a career civil servant who spent most decades inside the CIA before leaving government running in university and coming back as secretary of defense Bob Gates trashed colleagues in the Obama administration. And what did he call his book. He called it duty. Now Jim Mattis as he has a duty not to trash his colleagues in the Trump administration but is happy to do so with others.

S13: It’s almost an unsustainable position now My other obsession clearly aside from Rod Rosenstein is Anthony Scaramucci and then I told you before we got on he spent last night sending me lots of e-mails telling me how disgusting I am.

S9: And it was very trumped by you know it was very like Trump would do. You know just you just tweet a lot of things. If you’re Jim Comey or whoever or Scaramouche himself about you know what a liar and a bug and scum you are and I’d pretend it doesn’t rattle me and that I have gotten trolled forever and I’ll continue to get trolled but on some level it does and it just makes me think it’s not my job to bring Scaramouche online if such a headache and I can’t handle this. And I think that we underestimate at our peril the fear even of powerful ex Marines. Jim Mattis their fear of being humiliated in public space by Trump.

S7: I mean we know what happens when Omarosa when Scaramouche you when call me see it just when I interject though.

S10: I understand what you’re saying and I’ve puzzled over this as well many many times. I think for someone like Jim Mattis the humiliation and the insult is to be compared to people like Anthony Skerritt Richie and Omarosa. Let’s be honest. OK. This man is the best this country has to offer. Yeah. OK. You know he is not like Antony’s Kerry. Why are we talking about him in the same sentence. Because of the circus that yeah this country and its government has become it is insulting to Jim Mattis. And I understand why it’s happening but we are living in a world of Trump’s creation in which the demure nation of individuals and institutions is so complete that jokers like reality TV show people that he hired and gave jobs they were qualified for in the administration for a week are being talked about as the same tone as people who spent four decades of their lives serving this country who went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq who who led thousands and thousands of troops into mortal danger and out who made serious decisions about the geo political strategy of this country. I don’t want to talk about Anthony scrimmage. I want to talk about that. You know and it’s not it’s not your fault but you know it just it’s so that’s what he’s responding to.

S9: I think the reason to compare them is just the way that they’ve taken such different tacks to the. It’s more like they’re like not on their CV but they’re like in that they were caught in the same tornado.

S11: Yeah except that they weren’t. Yeah you know that’s the other thing. Right. That’s right. Scaramouche you lived in Donald Trump’s fantasy land media world. Yeah. And it’s part of the issue is that Jim Martin did not write out. He lived in the Pentagon and he avoided the White House wherever possible. That’s probably why he wanted to stay for so long in this office although he disagreed with the president on such core issues of principle. Right. You know so he’s leading you know the largest military in the world. Yeah United States is responsible single handedly. Just look at these numbers the other day for 40 percent of the world’s military spending. OK. You know we’re talking about nuclear modernization we’re not talking about Scaramouche his Twitter feed. No no time’s Twitter.

S9: Here’s the weird thing. OK. I think I’ve mentioned this on the show before I saw Christiane Amanpour who I know also has had a run at Maddox interview Hillary Clinton and like it was her first public interview to sort of women’s event soon after the election and she said something like I’m part of the resistance now. She took responsibility for losing and and was very gracious and then she I think Iman and talked to her about something they both wanted to talk about which was North Korea. And and Hillary Clinton started talking about plutonium and uranium reserves and the tunnels thing.

S12: And I was just like flooded with relief. I just wanted to hear people talking about North Korea without Dennis Rodman present you know without someone in a pot coin T-shirt at the center. And I think one of the problems for Mattis is just that the streams crossed because yes you know he crossed into North Korea is Trump is reminding us. And what is Jim Mattis do with that moment. It was like you know an episode of The Bachelor goes to North Korea or something. And yet it seemed to have geopolitical consequences. And that must have just. I mean I’m not saying that means Jim Mattis waded into this other territory. I just mean that’s part of the cognitive dissonance for some of these outgoing figures of great accomplishment like him and Mueller.

S11: Absolutely I think that’s a really important insight. Remember Rex Tillerson who really bonded interestingly with Mattis they didn’t know each other before but those two had a really strong alliance. So you had manis And Tillerson both you sort of like voices from a different universe and also a different era. And Tillerson came in and he was like asked all the time about what is your reaction to this or that tweet. And he would just say I don’t know anything about it. I don’t even follow the president’s tweets. And then he became of course the first secretary of state ever fired via Twitter. The joke is both on him. But it made him even less equipped to deal with this sort of circus like atmosphere that even our most serious national security issues have have devolved into. And so you know it’s hard. So I’m saying like it’s like I understand why we’re talking about scavenging and mass in the same sentence but yet it’s also like of course. I think that’s exactly why he’s so deeply uncomfortable. And I’m kind of missing this opportunity as he goes out in public.

S6: Exactly how do you think he sees the precedent set by people that didn’t join the administration and I’m thinking of James Clapper and John Brennan who are there much for his style of guy you know.

S11: Well that’s fascinating that Clapper is actually a really interesting case study and I don’t know enough about the internal politics of the Obama administration to I have no idea. You know if they worked well together or not in the administration Clapper was the head of National Intelligence at Mattis was the head of CENTCOM. Now Clapper was famously close mouthed during his previous government service. Right. The only existing profile of him before the Trump era. I know because I interviewed Clapper early on in the Trump administration when he was just becoming a public critic of the president. Yeah and there was literally this one profile of him by our mutual friend paragraph. Yeah. Which it was all about how he just would never say anything and hated reporters and hated the media. And now he’s become this like kind of super public critic of the president. I think that you know at least the madness of today claims that that that’s the wrong approach. And you know at this book party that I went to here in Washington with Mattis It was fascinating because two of his very old Marine general friends were their fellow four star generals John Kelly who I mentioned the former White House Chief of Staff yard as well by Trump and also not very forthcoming publicly. And then John Allen who really different course he’s now the head of the Brookings Institution here in Washington. But in 2016 he decided that the threat from Trump was so serious that he would break with the military’s tradition of reserve. And he endorsed Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention at the same time that Michael Flynn now famous Michael Flynn Yeah worst Trump at the Republican convention. And I don’t know if Mattis saw Allen in the room or just was on his mind but he was very defensive obviously in front of this crowd and at the end of his remarks he sort of unprompted actually attacked John Allen by name along with Flynt and he said well you know they’re my friends. But what they did was wrong and I think it was a terrible thing for our country and a violation essentially of our military code. And I will never do that. Yikes. JOHN ALLEN By the way was not happy about that and he left quite soon thereafter.

S9: I had Clapper on the show and he had one of the most elegant restrained but piercing kind of criticisms of the president as a national security danger that anyone has ever done and certainly like certainly no journalist has been able to pull it off. And know he can write. He’s just a really good thinker. Yeah that was my impression as well when I interviewed him. So there’s this other thing and now I want to get into Trump in August. I don’t know if you felt this way when you saw Mueller. Susan when he gave his presentation to Congress he suddenly thought we’ve been talking analyzing all these players as if they’re 45 and at the height of their mental powers and that they’re making decisions that are just keen and sharp and morally engaged and that they’ve managed somehow to keep up with what like Lucifer 2.0 how his hacks work. You know they have Galaxy brains and they’re masterful and they understand strategy and everything from Cambridge POLITICO to backstabbing in the Senate and they’re just super powerful Churchills. All of them. And then we saw that Mueller and it was heartbreaking but also like there was a tenderness in it is mortal and maybe has some cognitive issues like President Clinton does like many other men his age or approaching his age like all of our fathers and grandfathers and the same. Seems to me a little bit true of Matisse that just like the mildness. I don’t know. It just seems like he might be thinking this is no country for old men right now like this is just too traumatic to get into the ring. It’s not only distasteful and beneath me and Scaramouche but it’s also like it’s just a lot for a big Grandpa brain. I mean you know Grandpa brain and also we keep saying you know and Garrett will say to Mueller as a Marine Mattis as a Marine. Yeah they were a Marine a long time ago. I used to play field hockey.

S14: You know I was good. Exactly. I’m a star I’m a varsity tennis player.

S12: Exactly. Everyone likes Joe if I would when they were 18 or 25 or even 40. But anyway so we see that and the other sort of spectacle which has consequences for our country is that decline we see in Trump isn’t worth talking about. He had such a weird August as you beautifully wrote about it.

S7: Yeah we’re adjourned Topsy right. And it’s not just Trump.

S8: We got Trump we got Joe Biden running for the Democrat. Right. God matters. We’ve got Mueller we’ve got Tillerson. You know it used to be it was other countries. You know it was the politburo it was the Chinese mysterious leadership. Now it’s America and dudes and it’s China who has an aggressive and ambitious middle aged guy running the show.

S5: Yes right. That’s kind of amazing.

S6: So let’s talk about scary. We would see also is obsessed with what he sees as Trump’s you know mental illness decline whatever it is. Is this worth talking about especially after this very strange August where between typos his usual lashing out at I guess the Debra Messing stuff made it into September. But you know he attacked Omarosa of course he attacked crooked cop James Comey. Like we can’t normalize this. He’s just like a drunk at a bar. What do you think.

S7: Well look it’s very interesting. I actually was skeptical interestingly enough.

S11: I came in to. I thought I would do a kind of look at what August added up to and I would go back through Trump’s kind of public commentary of which there is a lot. And you know not the tweet the constant talking to the press as he gets on and off his helicopter. In August I was you know doing this big long print new yorker profile page so it was August I thought to be an interesting exercise to look back and you know I actually was skeptical. I thought Well Trump is just Trump and it’s being overblown this sort of theory of decline and he’s always said Nutty things and he’s always been confrontational and trafficked and insults. And yet I came away thinking wow we have been the boiled frog here more than we realize. And that you know it’s we’ve been overwhelmed by the ratcheting up of the outrage machine by the president that we actually have not realized how much there is a difference both in volume and tone to what the president is doing and I at the last minute said Well let me look at August of two years ago because we all remember that as a radically nutty early month. Yes ministrations. And that was fire and fury and that was Charlottesville. And you know a kind of realization that this presidency you know wasn’t being managed by the adults in the room like Jim madness. And it turned out that Trump had made fewer than half as many tweets in August of 2017. He was now in August of this year not only just on this device all the time. And clearly more addicted to it but much more confrontational in his use of it angrier more vituperative more outrageous for example the number of direct insults of a particular person so I’m not talking about insulting the fake news. I’m not talking about insulting the Democrats but a particular individuals way up. It made big news when he did serve 14 times. Back in August of 2017 is 52 times in August of 2019 with a much much longer list of enemies perceived and real. And again this is the president United sitting in the Oval Office doing this. This is not normal folks. Yes. I knew that Trump had become obsessed in recent months with the Fed and its chairman that he himself appointed Jay Powell and he’s really desperately concerned that Powell is going to raise interest rates and trigger. A recession of some kind that would undermine Trump’s ability to get re-elected. But when you actually look and do the numbers and you realize that the United States is attacking the chairman of the Fed perhaps the most powerful single individual in the world economy outside of the leaders of the United States and China again and again in the most base and frankly vile personal terms. Yeah yeah.

S7: Insulting the intelligence of this man. I mean just it’s actually crazy. Yeah yeah. Isn’t it. It is. It is. I mean I I mean you know the green land thing. Let’s we didn’t talk about that. I mean you know I’ve given up on that when we were and the messiah thing we were was in yes we were in August.

S11: You know we were away in Massachusetts at my parents house and one night in the middle of all this we had a friend over of my parents and she was you know in true vacation mode as opposed to externals or Semite. Vicki right. Right. And it was the night that Trump had canceled his visit to Denmark because he was mad at them for making fun of his demand that he wanted to purchase green. Yes. And so everyone at dinner is just talking about Trump canceling this trip to Denmark. And finally after you know five or 10 minutes this woman interrupts and she’s like wait can you guys back up here.

S7: Trump wants to buy green land. Right. I just thought that was such a like reality check moment like people.

S5: This is pretty nutty. Yes.

S9: I still think Adam shifts. This is not OK. That’s not OK. Speech is one of the best documents of our time. Yes.

S12: It’s like shouldn’t we hold him to a slightly higher standard than just open felonies that he can be indicted for now. You know it’s one after another that’s not OK. That’s not it just ask yourself.

S6: Ask your friend. Is it OK to try to buy Greenland. Denmark says no and so you basically say fuck Denmark on Twitter. I mean no it’s not OK.

S7: But what do we do about that. Well but here’s the thing. I mean you and I can barely remember Adam Schiff speech. Yeah I really think that other people can.

S11: I mean Trump has succeeded because we can’t even remember because the moral clarity of some of the critiques of him are lost in a flood of daily news and also because we are such a partisan and divided country. And to me that’s you know the thing that that I do keep coming back to is that there’s such an impulse to play this as team sports and because of that you have not only this incredible enduring support for Trump among self-identified Republicans but the desire to create an ideology and to turn it into a principled policy struggle wherever possible as a way of both distracting the conversation from all the things you and I are talking about that have to do essentially with the president outlier character and behavior in the job and then the insistence upon that as a way in a fact of justifying their own support for it. And that has proved to be actually a winning formula it works.

S6: Yes it does. That was a perfect analysis I got to leave it at that.

S14: Susan it’s so good to have you here and also so good to see you in the New Yorker. Thanks again. Oh it’s terrific to be with you. That’s it for today’s show. What did you think. Write some thoughtful reflective things to us on the Internet. I’m at page 88. The show is at real Trump cast our show today was produced by Melissa Kaplan. I’m Virginia Heffernan. Thanks for listening to Trump cast.