In May of 2016, the New York Times reported that one of John Kasich’s senior advisers was contacted by the Trump campaign, which offered Kasich the vice presidency, claiming that he could be “the most powerful vice president in history.” When the adviser asked how that would happen, the Times reported that the Trump staffer responded that the vice president would be in charge of domestic and foreign policy while President Trump would focus on “making America great again.” For many people on both sides of the political aisle, such a distribution of responsibilities would be the best case scenario in a Trump administration. President Trump can spend his time tweeting and speechifying, while leaving the hard work of policy making to the experienced, more traditional politicians.
The recent hearings for Trump’s Cabinet appointees lend some credence to the argument that this is, in fact, how President Trump intends to govern. Many of his nominees, especially for the national security-related positions, expressed policy preferences that diverged significantly from Trump’s campaign promises. But perhaps the most important Cabinet member in this context is the new Secretary of Defense, retired U.S. Marine General James Mattis.
Not only did Trump demonstrate a willingness to listen to General Mattis on the issue of waterboarding, but Mattis seems to profoundly disagree with many of President Trump’s foreign policy priorities. During his congressional testimony, Mattis described the need for NATO and other American alliances that Trump has described as “obsolete”, stating that “history is clear: nations with strong allies thrive and those without them wither.” Mattis went on to claim that “NATO is central to our defense.” He asserted that the “the international order…is not self-sustaining” and “demands tending by an America that leads wisely, standing unapologetically for the freedoms each of us in this room have enjoyed. He argued that the U.S. should stick with the Iran nuclear deal, calling it “imperfect” but also noting that when America gives her word, “we have to live up to it and work with our allies.” And, perhaps most importantly given recent events, General Mattis expressed concerns over Russian expansionism, stating that he supported deploying American troops to Eastern Europe as a deterrent, that Moscow’s actions “raise concerns on several fronts,” and that NATO “must harness renewed political will to confront and walk back aggressive Russian actions.” In short, the general sounded like he would have fit nicely in the Cabinet of any recent president and seemed at odds with some of the more non-conventional pronouncements of the current president.
It’s hard to see how Secretary Mattis’s positions can co-exist with the policy preferences of his boss. So, our new defense secretary might very well function as the canary in President Trump’s coal mine. So long as Secretary Mattis remains at the Department of Defense, we can be reasonably assured that he is able to implement the policies he prefers and is not being forced to move too far from those positions. If, however, Mattis resigns abruptly or early on in the first administration, that could very well be a sign that President Trump may be demanding implementation of his policies in the Pentagon, and perhaps across the whole government. Already there have been reports of clashes between the general and the president, as Mattis allegedly bristled at many of the appointees Trump planned on naming to the Defense Department, including Vincent Viola, the billionaire tapped to be Secretary of the Army, and all of the names floated for undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the position that oversees all of the DOD-based intelligence agencies.
So far, Secretary Mattis seems to have won some of these battles. But will he win the war? Can the man known as “Mad Dog” resist the power of the president and keep the U.S. comfortably between the boundaries of its traditional foreign policy? Or will Trumpism win out, weakening NATO and other alliances, withdrawing from the Iran deal, and so on? It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the fate of American national security, if not that of the free world, rests on Mattis’s ability to stay alive in the coal mine of Trump’s Department of Defense.