WASHINGTON – Once a general, always a general? Not always, but James Mattis, the Marine Corps general turned secretary of defense, did not entirely take off his uniform when he served in President Donald Trump’s cabinet. He still thought of himself as a military man compelled to follow the orders of his commander in chief.
On television the other morning when asked about Trump, Mattis pled ignorance, said he wasn’t up to speed on whatever details and suggested everyone call him Jim to underscore his civilian status.
Now, Mattis is on a book tour, promoting stories of leadership that omit any negative references to his most recent boss, Donald Trump, but finds plenty to criticize in former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Mattis resigned as Trump’s defense secretary in December 2018 after a disagreement over Syria policy. After Trump announced an abrupt withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria, according to an account in Atlantic Magazine, Mattis handed in his resignation, telling the president, “You’re going to have to get the next secretary of defense to lose to ISIS. I’m not going to do it.”
In interviews, Mattis dodges questions about Trump, saying he won’t criticize a sitting president. As a military man, he regards the commander in chief as his superior. That was true when he wore the uniform, but the moment he put on a suit and entered civilian life, he was no long answerable in the same way to the commander in chief.
The secretary of defense is a civilian position and is no different in the independence Mattis enjoyed within the Cabinet than the heads of the State and Treasury Departments. When either of them disagrees with the White House over policy, they are not bound to resign and they are not summarily fired (though with Trump, firing by tweet is always a possibility).
Mattis’ refusal to speak out on anything having to do with Trump reflects badly on him and his ability to understand that the moment he took a civilian job, he had a responsibility to push back and to question authority.
Where was Mattis when Trump hurled insults at America’s allies while cozying up to Russian President Putin or North Korea’s leader Kim Jung Un? We don’t know because he’s not saying because he’s still following the military code, and military rules.
But the moment he retired from the military and entered civilian life he was no longer answerable to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. As a military man, he could be court-martialed if he disobeyed an order. Not true for the secretary of defense.
As secretary of defense, he was answerable to President Trump in Trump’s role as chief executive officer of the country, not as commander in chief of the armed forces.
As a civilian leader, Mattis would have the thanks of a grateful nation if he were to speak out.
It’s tempting to think he is hiding behind the military shield because he doesn’t want to incur Trump’s wrath. .
So, with the 2020 election looming, there is still time for him to share what he knows with the American people about the intellectual and psychological capacity of Trump to carry out the responsibilities of the office of the president for another four years.
— Twitter: @douglas_cohn