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In A Tumultuous Administration, Defense Secretary Endures

Over the past week-and-a-half, President Trump has had quite a lot to say on defense matters.

He tweeted that Iran would suffer historic consequences if it threatened the US. He scolded NATO allies. And he privately discussed security issues with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Left unclear is what role, if any, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has had in any of this.

And that raises a larger unknown: just what is the status of Mattis in this administration, a year-and-a-half into his turn as Trump's Pentagon chief.

Under Trump, Mattis has developed a penchant for avoiding the limelight. At the NATO summit in Brussels, he kept a strikingly low profile as President Trump browbeat NATO allies over their defense spending.

But as Mattis flew over Europe after the summit, he sardonically dismissed reports that he was at odds with the president and that he and the top brass back home were trying to patch things up with their friends in NATO.

"I just heard about this story that the Pentagon's in damage control," he told reporters aboard his armored military version of a Boeing 747. "That was fascinating, I love reading fiction."

In fact, Mattis' and Trump's differences over NATO go way back.

"He brought up his questions about NATO," Mattis said of his job interview with President-elect Trump, a man he'd never met before, in the first and only lengthy TV interview he's done as Pentagon chief. "And my response was that I thought that if we didn't have NATO, that he would want to create it because it's a defense of our values, it's a defense of democracy."

And Mattis does have a history of tangling with higher-ups. The Obama White House in 2013 removed the four-star Marine general as head of U.S. Central Command after he pressed unsuccessfully for a third aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf at a time when Obama was intent on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran.

A job he didn't seek

For Trump, Mattis' renown as a battle-hardened Marine had a clear appeal - as did a nickname Mattis himself hates.

"We are going to appoint 'Mad Dog' Mattis as our secretary of defense," president-elect Trump informed a cheering crowd in Cincinnatti three weeks after winning the presidency.

It was a job, Mattis said at his confirmation hearing, he was not angling to get.

"When this unanticipated request came, I was enjoying a full life west of the Rockies," Mattis told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I was not involved in the presidential campaign and I was certainly not seeking or envisioning a position in any new administration."

"He's not a conservative," says the Heritage Foundation's James Carafano, a national security expert who was on Trump's transition team. "He's actually probably more comfortable sitting in a cocktail lounge with people from the last administration. And he's certainly not comfortable at all in the political realm."

Unlike Trump's other cabinet secretaries, Mattis conspicuously did not praise the president at the first full Cabinet meeting last year. Last week, he was a no-show at the first Cabinet meeting after Trump's Helsinki summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

"I think Secretary Mattis is in a more difficult situation than any secretary of defense we've ever had," says Chuck Hagel, the former Nebraska Republican senator who served as President Obama's third defense secretary.

"You've got a president of the United States saying things that we've really never heard before from a commander-in-chief, and then the secretary of defense has to go back around and reassure our allies and our partners," Hagel tells NPR. " 'Well, the president really didn't mean that', or 'this is what he really did mean,'or 'don't worry about it. We're going to be OK.' "

Wins and losses: a scorecard

Mattis did chalk up some early wins as defense secretary.

Trump says Mattis convinced him not to support torture; Mattis was also authorized to set troop levels in Afghanistan and he managed to keep Trump on board with the Iran nuclear deal.

But since then, Trump has pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal, withdrawn from the Paris climate accord that Mattis had backed and established a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, a move Mattis was known to have opposed.

"He's still being called the secretary of reassurance," says Mara Karlin, executive director of the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. "That said, this is all just getting a whole lot tougher."

Karlin, who's served as a senior Pentagon adviser to five other defense secretaries, says Mattis has been trying to shift the Pentagon's focus from fighting terrorists in the Middle East and southwest Asia to confronting great powers - namely, China and Russia.

"So now Secretary Mattis and his team have some very hard questions to reconcile," says Karlin of the fallout from the Helsinki summit. "Is it that China and Russia are still a top priority, or is Russia no longer top of the list?"

Others marvel that Mattis has persevered as Pentagon chief a year-and-a-half into the Trump presidency.

"The question is how long can he continue to do this," says Leon Panetta, who served as Obama's second defense secretary and says he remains in regular contact with Mattis.

"Knowing Jim Mattis, there is a line that he is not going to stand around and allow to be crossed," Panetta observes, "particularly when it comes to serious decisions regarding our U.S. forces."

Although Mattis was blindsided last month when Trump called off military exercises with South Korea, Panetta thinks he can live with that "as long as it's temporary."

The Heritage Foundation's Carafano doubts the 67-year-old retired general would quit.

"So Mattis should resign because he doesn't like Trump's style?" Carafano asks rhetorically. "Mattis is much more of an adult like that, and he knows what's actually getting done, so I think the scenario of 'Mattis quits because he can't take it anymore' - I think that's very unlikely."

Mattis appears to have adopted a survivor's strategy: the less he says in public, the more he'll be heard by a president who loathes any competition for the spotlight. That's led to growing complaints, though, from reporters who cover the Pentagon about how infrequently he takes questions from them - Mattis' most recent appearance at the briefing room's podium was April 30.

"The person he works for has said that the press is the enemy of the people, so the safest way to play this, obviously, is if you don't say anything, you don't get in trouble," says former Defense Secretary Hagel. "I understand there's a self-preservation dynamic in this for Secretary Mattis, but I don't think you can't sustain that."

Former Pentagon adviser Karlin says there's a high price to Mattis keeping his head down.

"The lack of transparency coming out of the [Defense] Department these days is profoundly worrying," she says. "Transparency on where the U.S. military is, what it is doing there, what effect its policies are having. Secretary Mattis and his team are in a real pickle."

Still, unlike other members of Trump's cabinet, there have not been calls for Mattis to step down. And there have been many expressions of support.

"I would rather have him inside this administration with an erratic president who doesn't quite understand any of this," says former Defense Secretary Panetta. "I would rather have him inside than outside at this point in time."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News NPR News
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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