President Donald Trump just told the world that he doesn’t care about human rights abuses—and he hinted at the possible departure of retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis, arguably the top official American that allies rely on to keep Trump’s worst instincts in check. But when Trump greenlighted poisoning and assassination by other regimes as long as it doesn’t involve Americans, Trump showed exactly why his defense secretary will stay in the job ... unless Trump orders him out.
In the interview aired Sunday, the American commander in chief basically shrugged when 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl asked him about documented human rights abuses by Russian and North Korean leaders. Trump articulated the brutal realpolitik of a transactional presidency that essentially gives dictators a blank check. He said Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is “probably” involved in assassinations and poisonings, like the alleged poisoning by Russian intelligence of an exiled Russian spy and his daughter, plus two other Britons in Salisbury, England. “But I rely on them,” Trump said, apparently referring to Moscow. “It's not in our country.”
Trump later mused in the same interview that Defense Secretary Mattis is “sort of a Democrat” who “may leave,” sparking speculation that he’s on the way out even though Trump added that he gets along with Mattis. “Everybody leaves,” he said.
Pentagon officials say he’s not going anywhere and Mattis told reporters along with him in Europe: “I’m on his team. We have never talked about me leaving.” Mattis has been in the job since January 2017, and President Barack Obama’s last three defense secretaries, Ash Carter, Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta, only stayed a couple of years each. Mattis detractors have been lobbying the president to replace him with a Fox commentator, retired Gen. Jack Keane, or with Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who frequently joins Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on visits to the Pentagon.
But those who know Mattis best say he’ll weather the rhetorical fire and public humiliation, until or unless the president says, “You’re fired.” Mattis considers his mission to be protecting U.S. troops, the Pentagon and the wider country from what he sees as Trump’s worst instincts: including his apparent lack of understanding of the moral underpinnings required for just U.S. actions.
U.S. law requires that allies and recipients of U.S. training respect human rights or face withdrawal of aid and possible sanctions. It’s clearly articulated on the State Department’s site that the U.S. must “hold governments accountable to their obligations under universal human rights norms … promote greater respect for human rights, including freedom from torture, freedom of expression, press freedom,” and “promote the rule of law, seek accountability, and change cultures of impunity.”
There are mistakes and exceptions—witness the U.S. giving the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen a pass after it targeted a bus filled with children — but the U.S. did pressure Riyadh into carrying out an internal investigation that led to the Saudis admitting fault.
Mattis also knows that rejecting illegal actions like indiscriminate killing and torture is what helps troops and intelligence officers sleep at night. He’s met plenty of troops who are plagued by the aftermath of missions gone wrong, comforting them with the assurance that they did their best because they followed the laws of war. Rule of law serves as a sanity and soul check in Mattis’ universe.
That’s why many retired generals, admirals and other veterans of both the military and past administrations took positions in Mattis’ Pentagon, at his personal request. In return, he tells them, I’ll manage the White House. You just do your job.
If he departs, expect a race to the exits of military and intelligence professionals who fear what or who comes next, and eschew being tarred by the legacy of what they might be asked to do. That sentiment is captured in a photo of the defense secretary plastered above one desk in the Pentagon, emblazoned with the words, “Mattis protects us.”
Multiple U.S. officials tell me they’ve embraced the authority Trump has given both the Pentagon and the CIA, pushing decisionmaking out of the Oval Office and National Security Council to the commanders on the ground. It’s been a welcome departure from what many saw as Obama’s over-involvement and lengthy, detailed questioning before agreeing to high profile operations like targeted killing, which they believe amounted to procrastinating on tough calls.
But they also believe Mattis won’t abuse that free rein. They are working for a man Marines call “the Warrior Monk,” not the “Mad Dog” moniker Trump favors: a student of history who knows what happens to armies who abandon their values and kill without quarter. They rot from the core out.
Mattis also knows the lessons of failed French General Napoleon Bonaparte and German dictator Adolf Hitler: when you take on the world, you will ultimately, eventually fail, hence Mattis’ attempted tutelage of Trump on the importance of nurturing NATO and other alliances.
The people who work for Mattis say he has fought quietly to hold the line in meetings with the president and his top advisors, speaking thoughtfully and often last, aiming to temper Trump’s, or his cabinet secretaries’ hyper-aggressive instincts.
Like those who work directly for Mattis, foreign officials who interact with the retired Marine take comfort in his steadfast commitment to using America’s military might judiciously, and justly. Some of them expressed alarm on Monday, on the signal Trump just sent Putin and others with his laissez faire tone on human rights, combined with his casual comment that Mattis might leave.
“This is the president of the United States speaking, and the world is watching,” said one European official, who did not like what he saw.