Mattis goes on offensive to say he backs Trump
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday pushed back hard against reports that he is out of step with President Donald Trump â" particularly on how to deal with North Korea â" 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.
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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 âwidely misinterpreted."
âRight now, if I say âsixâ and the president says âhalf a dozen,â theyâre going to say I disagree with him, so letâs just get over that,â Mattis said. âIf thatâs the story that some people want to write, then theyâll find the way, theyâll sort out something.â
Still, the retired general acknowledged that he and the president have had their differences.
âFirst time I met with President Trump, we disagreed on three things in my first 40 minutes with him,â Mattis recalled, citing the relevance of NATO and torture as points of tension, along with another subject that he did not detail. âThis is not a man who is immune to being persuaded if he thinks youâve got an argument.â
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 â" and thus requiring a special congressional waiver.
âThat I think is precisely the kind of thing that made Mattis take this job,â she said. âHe was the one with experience, with some restraint, the one who understood the costs associated with using the military.â
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 âtalking is not the answer.â
When Mattis was asked about the tweet hours later, he seemed to disagree, saying that âwe are never out of diplomatic solutions.â
But Mattis insisted on Thursday that he is a ctually in agreement with the president. âI agree with the president, we should not be talking right now to a nation thatâs firing missiles over the top of Japan, an ally. So I was â" he said, âWeâre not talking to them.â I agree 100 percent,â Mattis said. âBut weâre not done with diplomacy.â
Some experts nevertheless perceive Mattis and Trump as not completely in lockstep on North Korea,
âThatâs a clear disagreement on policy,â 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.
âI think they do have a coherent strategy on North Korea. ... The disagreement appears to be on the talking points,â he said.
Feaver also pointe d out that there are several ways to interpret Trumpâs North Korea tweet. While many took it to mean that the president is refusing to negotiate, Feaver thinks that by saying âtalking is not the answerâ 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 âfire and fury.â
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 ambition s.
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 âhold the lineâ while the country sorted through upheaval.
âJust hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other, and showing it â" of being friendly to one another, you know, that Americans owe to one another,â 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 presidentâs primetime address on an Afghanistan strategy and was riffing off the unity theme the president himself used to open the speech.
â Literally, Iâm using the presidentâs thoughts, and they thought that I was distancing from the president. So I mean, it shows how ludicrous this really is,â Mattis said. âIâm not trying to make fun of the people who write along these lines, but I literally can take the presidentâs themes and use them and Iâm still seen as at odds with the president.â
Mackubin Thomas Owens, the dean of academic affairs at the Institute of World Politics who also worked with Mattis on the book âWarriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military," said he saw those remarks as âmorale-building, not pushback.â
Many reports also asserted that Mattis was bucking the presidentâs 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 observer s suggested he was delaying the presidentâs order. But he said Thursday the president would not have given him time to look closely at the issue if he didnât want Mattis to actually examine it.
âHeâs told me what he wants in broad terms, and now heâs leaving it up to me,â he said.Source: Google News