The arrival in Iraq on Monday of Jared Kushner as part of a senior U.S. military delegation is the latest example of a conscious outreach campaign by the Pentagon to President Donald Trump and his inner circle, according to several administration officials with direct knowledge.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have sought to build strong personal and working relationships with members of the new administration – with an eye to using those relationships to win the president’s support not just for their approach to dealing with ISIS, but for making hiring and other decisions.
Two officials said that both Mattis and Dunford have spent a considerable amount of time meeting privately with the commander-in-chief, who graduated from military school as a teen but never served, to discuss a range of issues facing the armed forces. They declined to provide further details. Dunford and Mattis have also invited White House advisers to high-level meetings in the Pentagon, said the officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly.
They’ve also been holding what one official called a series of “pop-up calls” outside the normal structure of the National Security Council, including one-on-one discussions between Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, who the officials said is on the defense secretary’s “speed dial.”
“Sounds like Mattis,” said James Carafano, vice president for foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation who served on the Trump transition team, of the Pentagon effort. He pointed out that there has been some friction between Mattis and the White House in recent months over personnel appointments – and the outreach is an effective way to get past that.
“The challenge is to work together with trust and confidence,” said Carafano, a retired Navy officer. “If you want to have a cabinet-level government and people all pulling in the same direction, it makes sense. You have to build bridges.”
Trump’s son-in-law Kushner, a senior White House adviser whose broad portfolio includes foreign policy, was invited on the trip to meet with Iraqi leaders by Dunford, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that Dunford had asked Kushner and Tom Bossert, the assistant to the president for homeland security, to help demonstrate American support for the Iraqi government, which is battling the Islamic State with significant U.S. military assistance.
“Jared’s going to specifically express the commitment of the United States to the government of Iraq, meet with U.S. personnel engaged in the campaign,” he told reporters. “Mr. Bossert will participate in meetings and briefings to reinforce the strong U.S.-Iraqi partnership to defeat ISIS.”
Kushner has major sway over policy, but is largely unfamiliar with the inner workings of the Pentagon or with diplomatic affairs.
Spicer said neither Kushner or Bossert had previously been to Iraq. Trump has also not traveled there.
Another recent example of Mattis’ efforts to build rapport with the Trump inner circle and reinforce cooperation between different power centers in the administration was the decision to invite Kushner and Steve Bannon, Trump’s top political adviser, to join the visit last month of Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, to the Pentagon.
Also on hand were Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser; Dina Powell, the deputy national security adviser for strategy; and representatives from the State Department, officials said.
The overall objective, said one of the national security officials, is “making sure everybody is seated at the table.”
The outreach comes as Trump’s inner circle, which is still in its early months and remains largely untested in national security, is grappling with a host of global challenges.
They include a more belligerent North Korea, the military campaign to dislodge the Islamic State from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, and a testy standoff with Russia over its incursions into both Ukraine and Syria.
Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general whose nomination garnered broad bipartisan support in the Senate, is widely seen as one of the more experienced hands at the top rungs of the Trump administration.
He’s also very close to Dunford, who served under him when he was in uniform, as well as John Kelly, another retired Marine general who is now secretary of Homeland Security.
In his outreach, Mattis is attempting to encourage an “inter-agency view,” according to one of the officials – and to reinforce that the best way to address challenges is by getting input from the White House and a variety of agencies.
That is especially true with the State Department, which was at loggerheads with the Pentagon in the waning days of the Obama administration, when aides said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry, who had deep policy differences over Syria, were barely communicating at all.
One of the officials said the Pentagon’s efforts to reach out to Tillerson were striking: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen them make sure the State Department was so clued in.”
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