Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday pushed back hard against reports that he is out of step with President Donald Trump — particularly on how to deal with North Korea — but also made clear his view that the commander-in-chief can be swayed to change his approach by a strong argument.
Mattis has come under fire recently for a series of pronouncements in which he appeared to disagree with the president, over his North Korea strategy and the ban on transgender service members, which Mattis this week delayed pending a detailed review by a panel of experts using the authority Trump granted him.
Mattis also was perceived to have criticized the government for dysfunction at its highest levels in leaked video of a talk with U.S. troops in Jordan.
But the former Marine general, who came out of retirement to serve in Trump’s Cabinet, stressed to reporters in an impromptu exchange at the Pentagon that any fundamental disagreement between the two men is “widely misinterpreted.”
“Right now, if I say ‘six’ and the president says ‘half a dozen,’ they’re going to say I disagree with him, so let’s just get over that,” Mattis said. “If that’s the story that some people want to write, then they’ll find the way, they’ll sort out something.”
Still, the retired general acknowledged that he and the president have had their differences.
“First time I met with President Trump, we disagreed on three things in my first 40 minutes with him,” Mattis recalled, citing the relevance of NATO and torture as points of tension, along with another subject that he did not detail. “This is not a man who is immune to being persuaded if he thinks you’ve got an argument.”
The comments provided a rare window into the back and forth between Trump and his Defense chief over some of the most monumental issues facing the Trump administration.
Mattis is widely seen as a moderating force on the president, who by his public comments appears to think very highly of his Defense secretary, whom he has referred to publicly by his military nickname “Mad Dog.”
Lindsay Cohn, a professor at the Naval War College who worked on a book with Mattis, said she thinks his ability to persuade an administration that lacks foreign policy experience is a key reason Mattis accepted the job, becoming only the second retired general to be the civilian head of the military in seven decades — and thus requiring a special congressional waiver.
“That I think is precisely the kind of thing that made Mattis take this job,” she said. “He was the one with experience, with some restraint, the one who understood the costs associated with using the military.”
In the most recent example of a perceived rift between Mattis and the president, Trump seemed to imply Wednesday that diplomacy with North Korea was over, tweeting that “talking is not the answer.”
When Mattis was asked about the tweet hours later, he seemed to disagree, saying that “we are never out of diplomatic solutions.”
But Mattis insisted on Thursday that he is actually in agreement with the president. “I agree with the president, we should not be talking right now to a nation that’s firing missiles over the top of Japan, an ally. So I was — he said, ‘We’re not talking to them.’ I agree 100 percent,” Mattis said. “But we’re not done with diplomacy.”
Some experts nevertheless perceive Mattis and Trump as not completely in lockstep on North Korea,
“That’s a clear disagreement on policy,” Cohn said of what she viewed as opposing statements made by Trump and Mattis regarding the role of diplomacy.
But Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University who served on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, said that he believes Mattis and Trump agree on the policy, but disagree on the way to talk about it.
“I think they do have a coherent strategy on North Korea. … The disagreement appears to be on the talking points,” he said.
Feaver also pointed out that there are several ways to interpret Trump’s North Korea tweet. While many took it to mean that the president is refusing to negotiate, Feaver thinks that by saying “talking is not the answer” Trump was signaling that he is done with the verbal back and forth that has escalated with Kim Jong Un’s regime in recent weeks.
Tensions with North Korea have been high all month, with the outlaw regime conducting missile tests and Trump ratcheting up the threats like promising to meet North Korean threats with “fire and fury.”
On Monday, North Korea launched an intermediate-range ballistic missile over Japan, reportedly triggering warnings to Japanese residents to take cover before the missile splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. In response, the United States, South Korea and Japan on Thursday initiated a snap military exercise in which they dropped bombs on a target range to demonstrate their solidarity in deterring North Korea and its nuclear ambitions.
Perceived disagreements between Trump and Mattis go beyond North Korea strategy, however.
In a leaked video of a troop talk with service members in Jordan earlier this month, Mattis told troops to “hold the line” while the country sorted through upheaval.
“Just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other, and showing it — of being friendly to one another, you know, that Americans owe to one another,” Mattis told them.
Many perceived the comments as an indictment of the dysfunction in the government and the president himself, who was roundly criticized for not forcefully enough blaming white supremacists for a violent protest in Charlottesville, Va., earlier this month.
But Mattis defended those remarks on Thursday, saying that he had watched the president’s primetime address on an Afghanistan strategy and was riffing off the unity theme the president himself used to open the speech.
“Literally, I’m using the president’s thoughts, and they thought that I was distancing from the president. So I mean, it shows how ludicrous this really is,” Mattis said. “I’m not trying to make fun of the people who write along these lines, but I literally can take the president’s themes and use them and I’m still seen as at odds with the president.”
Mackubin Thomas Owens, the dean of academic affairs at the Institute of World Politics who also worked with Mattis on the book “Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military,” said he saw those remarks as “morale-building, not pushback.”
Many reports also asserted that Mattis was bucking the president’s order on the transgender ban by allowing currently serving troops to stay in uniform during the review period. The order, however, granted Mattis that authority and six months to iron out an implementation plan.
When Mattis announced his transgender policy review, some observers suggested he was delaying the president’s order. But he said Thursday the president would not have given him time to look closely at the issue if he didn’t want Mattis to actually examine it.
“He’s told me what he wants in broad terms, and now he’s leaving it up to me,” he said.
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