U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stands after President Donald Trump signed an executive order at the Pentagon on Jan. 27. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

Like the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster are expected to be early alarms in the event that life in the Trump administration becomes untenable. If the White House fails to build an atmosphere in which they can work, Mattis and McMaster — both of whom are keenly aware that the world is watching their every move — could take their leave. The shock waves caused by their departure would be felt throughout the White House, Congress, and foreign capitals around the globe. The stakes couldn’t be higher — everyone knows that if they aren’t able to make it work, something must be seriously broken.

During the campaign, Donald Trump said he would hire the best and brightest and no one is doubting whether Mattis and McMaster are among the best of the best. If their collective advice is respected by President Trump and his staff, the image of a unified, serious administration will send a strong signal to both our own national security apparatus and to our allies and adversaries around the world. However, if the White House draws meaningless red lines and mismanages the Department of Defense and the National Security Council (NSC) in the same style as its predecessor, the president’s relationship with the nation’s defense and intelligence communities could reach the point of no return.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, Kimberley A. Strassel details the uphill battle Mattis’s Pentagon is fighting with the White House over personnel. The former general, she argues, “wants to choose his own team based on the strength of their views, political affiliations be damned.” And as Strassel puts it, “the Trump White House has a right to want people it trusts as much as it trusts Mr. Mattis.” It remains to be seen, though, just how long Secretary Mattis’ patience will last.

Like Mattis, McMaster is plainspoken and to the point. Just days after his White House debut, McMaster began reworking the NSC’s organizational structure. If all goes to plan, he will bring the Homeland Security Council back under his direct control and reinstate the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as full members of the NSC principals committee. By all accounts, McMaster won’t be shy about telling Trump what he needs to hear — regardless of any unwelcoming atmospherics in the White House. Whether Trump will listen, though, only time will tell.

Of course, the game of personnel chicken that we are seeing is not at all new. In the Obama years, the administration rolled out dozens of policy czars who reported directly to the White House, in effect bypassing not only congressional oversight but also the input of department secretaries. Oh, by the way, vacancies at the highest levels of government created a culture of pervasive dysfunction months into Obama’s second term. But let’s not harp on that …

Anyway, if Trump and his staff learn anything from previous administrations, they will soon accept that exhaustive debates and chilly relationships from disagreements over department personnel are too slow and impractical an endeavor to sustain. By my count, Trump’s staff is due to arrive at that conclusion pretty soon, and Mattis and McMaster will get most of what they want. If not, well, there could be two dead canaries and one extremely toxic White House.