Mattis Quietly Keeps Distance From Trump’s Most Divisive Moves

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, during a news conference at Government House in Sydney, Australia, this month. Credit: David Moir/European Pressphoto Agency

The New York Times,

WASHINGTON — Less than an hour after President Trump announced in the Rose Garden that he was pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord, the White House press office began sending emails with quotations from cabinet officials praising the decision.

The politically divisive move was hailed by the secretaries of labor, commerce, agriculture, energy, interior, education, Treasury and transportation as well as the head of the Office of Management and Budget and Nikki R. Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations.

Notably absent from the list was Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has worked to stay out of the political fray. At a time when other military brass in the Trump administration — retired and active-duty — have shed their cloaks of political neutrality, Mr. Mattis has avoided publicly backing the president’s most divisive moves.

“For him to do his job, he has to be apolitical,” said Dov Zakheim, the Pentagon’s top financial officer in the first term of President George W. Bush.

Mr. Mattis, who gained a reputation for bluntness during his years as a Marine Corps general, has appeared behind the lectern in the Pentagon briefing room only twice since he became defense secretary, the better to stay out of political debates, aides say. Mr. Mattis’s first, and only, appearance on the Sunday news shows did not come until four months into his term.

Mr. Mattis, his friends and colleagues say, is driven by several considerations, including his belief that the military’s political neutrality can help hold together a deeply divided nation — a point that Mr. Mattis hammered home in a commencement address last month at West Point in which he made one reference to the commander in chief and none to Congress,

Instead, he pointed to ancient Athens in hailing apolitical “defenders who look past the hot political rhetoric of our day” to protect “our experiment in self-governance.” The speech by Mr. Mattis, who is registered to vote in Washington State, which does not require political affiliations be disclosed, stood in contrast to Vice President Mike Pence’s address at the United States Naval Academy commencement in which he referred to Mr. Trump a dozen times, calling him the “best friend the armed forces of the United States will ever have.”

Mr. Mattis’s low profile is part of his strategy for exerting influence from within, at one-on-one meetings with Mr. Trump or the dinners he has with the president and General Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was also at the White House last week while the president watched part of the highly anticipated congressional testimony by James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director.

Mr. Mattis is trying to ensure he keeps his line to the president open so Mr. Trump can quickly be briefed on the issues that Mr. Mattis cares about the most. When the Syrian government launched a chemical weapons attack in April, Mr. Mattis rapidly presented his boss with possible responses; within 63 hours, a hail of missiles were fired on a Syrian airfield, the option Mr. Trump had chosen.

He also heeds entreaties from the president. Mr. Mattis held a May 19 news conference on progress in the campaign against the Islamic State after Mr. Trump asked him to do it. Mr. Mattis used the occasion to assert that the idea of surrounding enemy strongholds to prevent Islamic State fighters from escaping and to “annihilate” the group was originated by the president, who did not serve in the armed forces and has no experience as a military strategist.

But people close to Mr. Mattis said that he distinguished between requests from Mr. Trump himself and those from administration aides, who have called the Pentagon weekly suggesting that he go on “Fox & Friends,” the Fox News morning show that is supportive of Mr. Trump, for instance, but to no avail.

Mr. Mattis has increasingly sought to avoid situations that might put him on the spot. During the 48 hours he recently spent flying to and from Asia, he limited his on-the-record interaction with reporters on his plane to a three-paragraph statement previewing a policy speech he gave in Singapore.

But he will appear before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees this week, giving lawmakers a rare opportunity to ask him publicly about a host of issues: Qatar, where Mr. Trump has alarmed Defense officials by calling the small emirate, home to more than 11,000 American and coalition troops, a sponsor of terrorism; and climate change, which the Pentagon views as a national security risk.

It was understandable, Mr. Zakheim said, for Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson — who was also not mentioned in the White House emails about the withdrawal from the Paris accord — to lie low on a highly charged issue like climate change.

“The care and feeding of allies and partners and friends is really the domain of those two guys,” he said.

Mr. Zakheim contrasted the relative reticence of Mr. Mattis with the support of Mr. Trump on partisan issues by the other generals in the administration — John F. Kelly, a retired Marine general who is secretary of Homeland Security, and Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser.

Mr. Kelly defended the reported efforts of Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, to set up a back channel to communicate with the Russian government. General McMaster, who went to the White House with a sterling reputation from his work at the Pentagon, was criticized for a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed written with Gary D. Cohn, the president’s chief economic adviser, in which they praised Mr. Trump for “reconfirming America’s commitment to NATO and Article 5,” something that Mr. Trump explicitly did not do, and for taking a swipe at President Barack Obama by writing that “America will not lead from behind.”

Mr. Mattis, by contrast, took apparent pains to contain the fallout when he was thrust into a political minefield. When the president announced his ban on travelers from some Muslim-majority countries on Jan. 27 at the Pentagon, Mr. Mattis released a statement afterward that made no mention of the ban but spoke only of another executive order Mr. Trump signed, on military readiness. Mr. Mattis also only accepted the ceremonial pen used to sign the readiness order; the travel ban pen was given to Mr. Pence.

But Mr. Mattis is not always able to dodge the debate over Mr. Trump’s policies. At a security conference in Singapore, a day after Mr. Trump pulled out of the Paris accord, the head of an Australian policy center praised Mr. Mattis as “the hope” of our side but then asked whether the United States was undermining the international order by pulling out of the climate deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Mr. Mattis responded by praising Mr. Trump for traveling to the Middle East and the NATO summit, then moved to politically safer terrain: the American public’s long history of wrestling with isolationism and foreign policy engagement.

“To quote a British observer of us from years ago, bear with us,” Mr. Mattis said. “‘Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing,’” he said, invoking a famous line often attributed to Winston Churchill.

William S. Cohen, a Republican and a former defense secretary for President Bill Clinton, who was in the audience, said that those in attendance understood that Mr. Mattis was walking a tightrope: “I think everyone understood that Jim is giving Trump the very best military and strategic advice possible and that he was walking a straight but fine line.”

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