The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mattis is trying to repair the damage Trump is doing

At the confirmation hearing for Trump's nominee for defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis warned about Russia and vowed to stand up to Trump when necessary. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Since taking office, President Trump has announced an “America First” policy, formally pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, painted a bleak picture of America, delivered a campaign-style inaugural address and embarked on a series of showy but unnecessary and expensive immigration initiatives. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary James Mattis has:

  • Publicly embraced the intelligence community (which Trump has publicly ridiculed and feuded with).
  • Praised NATO and reached out to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “to reconnect and discuss the key role NATO plays in transatlantic security. The secretary, who previously served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation, wanted to place the call on his first full day in office to reinforce the importance he places on the alliance. The two leaders discussed the importance of our shared values, and the secretary emphasized that when looking for allies to help defend these values, the United States always starts with Europe.”
  • Scheduled a trip to visit badly shaken allies in Asia. (“Secretary of Defense James Mattis will embark on his first trip as secretary Feb. 1-4 to meet with his counterparts from two critical allies, Japan and the Republic of Korea. The four day trip will include stops in Seoul and Tokyo. … The trip will underscore the commitment of the United States to our enduring alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea, and further strengthen U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea security cooperation.”)
  • Delivered a moving and unifying speech to his department.

Speaking in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (which occurred before he took office), he told the Pentagon civilian and military employees on Wednesday:

We’ve experienced the coequal commitment — didn’t matter what rank you were, didn’t matter if you’re civilian or military — a coequal commitment across this department to the mission. And it’s a mission that calls for all hands to strive together and to fight together and to look out for one another.
Today, we observe the legacy of a man up here on the board behind me — a man who has called upon Americans many times to strive together and to fight together and to do their duty in the long struggle for equality and civil rights.  In our nation’s history, our military has often served as an example to the American people of unity and strength, of how a diverse group of people can be motivated even under austere or grim conditions of the battlefield, to come together as equals.

He then took the DOD employees on a short history tour, recounting Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s 1805 journey aided by an African American slave and Sacajawea. He recalled, “They returned east to report back to their commander-in-chief, President Thomas Jefferson. They accomplished their mission to find the best route to the Pacific, and it was an all-hands effort.”

At a time of great polarization in the country, with the most instantaneously unpopular and divisive president in recent memory, Mattis stressed unity of purpose. “Military service in America is a touchstone for American patriots of all races, genders, creeds. The men and women of the Department of Defense, military and civilian, reflect the diverse and selfless character of our national defense and have done so long before our nation had reached the level it has reached today in terms of civil rights.” This is far from the Trumpian gimmick of decreeing a day of patriotism. This is the real deal — selfless sacrifice, given freely for fellow Americans.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

While the president fans the flames of intolerance, Mattis tells the military and civilian employees to be an example to the rest of the country. (“Our armed forces are stronger today because of the perseverance of Dr. King and so many others in this country who have fought for civil rights and equality for all. And we can trace our department’s roots back to an Army patrol in 1805 when we listened to our better angels, and on this day of action, we are inspired to continue being a model for our nation.”)

We hope the White House is listening and watching. Mattis is the only one in the administration so far to act, well, presidential and responsible. He knows we need allies. He knows the intelligence community is vital to our security. And he knows American values must be reinforced and celebrated. He knows our diversity is an asset, not a threat. Too bad Trump doesn’t get any of this.