If there’s one thing we have learned about Donald Trump, which any observant person should already have known, it’s that he hates any implication that he is not perfect. And he especially hates the idea that someone else might be placating him or condescending to him. Which is why this new article in the New Yorker probably puts Defense Secretary James Mattis’ head directly on the chopping block.
The basic gist of it is that Mattis views his job as being not to serve Trump but to protect the country from him. He does this in a number of ways, including stalling (Trump has a notoriously short attention span and will forget the ridiculous thing he demanded yesterday when the next shiny object appears, offering him an artificially limited set of options to restrain his choices, and other pragmatic tactics. This is going to infuriate Trump because, well, he’s Trump.)
There had been instances, with regard to North Korea and also Iran, in which McMaster requested war plans from Mattis, only to have Mattis refuse to supply them. To McMaster and his colleagues, Mattis’s apparent attempts to limit Trump’s options verged on insubordination. One senior N.S.C. official told me that Mattis perceives his role as playing “babysitter” to the President.
“Part of the friction in H.R.’s relationship with Trump was that the guy didn’t like the fact that his foreign-policy team was just stonewalling him,” Ken Pollack said. And Trump didn’t seem to perceive that Mattis was doing the stonewalling. Two senior officials at the White House told me that when Trump demanded to know what had become of options he requested, McMaster, always the Boy Scout, refused to point the finger at Mattis. He just said, “We’re working on it, sir.” According to Pollack, McMaster believed that part of the tension he experienced with Mattis and Tillerson sprang from their perception that he was “too responsive” to the President.
Erin Simpson said that there is a “Goldilocks problem” when it comes to advising Trump. In most Administrations, a policy adviser might present three choices: one that’s too cold, one that’s too hot, and a third that’s just right. But what do you do when you are serving a President who nearly always picks the hot option? The delicate game theory of nuclear brinkmanship is predicated, in no small part, on the idea that the two sides are engaging in rational calculation. Yet both Trump and Kim are prone to intemperate rhetoric, peacocking, and impulsive decisions. According to multiple senior officials, in early January the President asked his staff to present him with a range of evacuation plans for the approximately two hundred thousand American civilians who live in South Korea. (On TV, Senator Lindsey Graham was calling for dependents of U.S. soldiers there to be brought home.) Any evacuation would send a profoundly alarming signal to South Korea, and inevitably put the U.S. and North Korea on a war footing. McMaster and his staff dutifully began gathering options for the President. The deliberations were scuttled only after Mattis and Kelly intervened.Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, once told Mattis, “Your job is to make sure these morons don’t get up in the morning and advance some lame-brained idea.” Mattis’s interactions with McMaster indicate that he perceives Trump as a radically mercurial figure who must be managed with a degree of manipulation and care that exceeds the usual parameters of his job. McMaster, in his insistence on a doctrinaire approach to his position, could seem, at times, like the Army leaders he once criticized—fighting the war he wanted to fight, rather than the one he was fighting.
This is wise on the part of Mattis and Tillerson, of course. And they served the country best by doing subtle things like this to keep Trump from indulging his worst instincts. I trust the generals at the Pentagon when it comes to decisions of war long before I would ever trust Trump. Trump’s personality flaws make him exactly the wrong person to ever be in charge of such decisions. His desperate need for validation and worship, his pathetic insecurity that makes him bully people and posture and preen like a tough guy, his emotional rather than thoughtful response to virtually everything, all make him not just unqualified but incredibly dangerous in such a situation.
But those same character flaws also means you have to pretend you’re not doing that, and the pretense had better e a successful one or it will not only incur his wrath and get you fired, it will make him go even further in the wrong direction just to prove to everyone that he’s the man in charge, not you.