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Mattis, who used a Hollywood actor as a stand-in spokesman, says the military doesn’t ‘do stunts’

Actor Gerard Butler spoke at the Pentagon on Oct. 15 on his new film about submarines. Butler canceled a trip to Saudi Arabia to promote the film. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Days before the midterm elections, President Trump said Wednesday that as many as 15,000 U.S. troops could be mobilized to “harden” the U.S. border against a caravan of mostly Honduran asylum seekers.

The closest caravan of people is as many as two months from reaching the Rio Grande, though some Republicans are seeking to portray the migrants as an immediate and existential threat. Trump has called it an “invasion” force.

A reporter Wednesday asked Defense Secretary Jim Mattis if the mobilization was a stunt to stoke Trump’s base.

“The support that we provide to the secretary for homeland security is practical support based on the request from the commissioner of customs and border police, so we don’t do stunts in this department,” Mattis said. He has previously said every military task must build the capacity to kill enemies but has sent troops to fill roles that have recently included shoveling manure in Border Patrol horse stables.

Here are a few moments that challenge Mattis’s assertion. The Pentagon’s chief spokeswoman, Dana W. White, did not return a request for comment on each.

Gerard Butler gave a Pentagon news conference. The (real) spokeswoman has avoided them for months.

Pentagon reporters have for months criticized limited access to Mattis and other top officials, who, on the occasional chance they are made available, have been sometimes instructed to answer only narrow questions in an effort to avoid contentious issues.

Enter Gerard Butler. In promotion of his Navy-endorsed submarine film “Hunter Killer,” the actor was invited to helm a Pentagon news conference Oct. 15.

That means he has held more news conferences recently than White, who has not held a briefing since May.

He even fielded a question about issues affecting his film promotion in Saudi Arabia. The orchestrated public affairs event came as the Pentagon was challenged to articulate the future of the U.S. military’s relationship with the country following Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s apparent murder at the hands of Saudi officials.

The United States provides arms, intelligence and refueling and other logistical support to the Saudi military for its war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led bombing campaign has helped drive a widespread famine and led to the deaths of thousands of civilians.

Mattis has since said the killing threatened to destabilize Middle East relations but has not indicated whether there will be changes to the U.S.-Saudi military alliance, although he has called for an end to the war in Yemen.

Pat Tillman: Family said military told ‘lies’ to turn dead soldier into a symbol

Pat Tillman, the NFL-star-turned-Army Ranger, was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004. It took five weeks for the Pentagon to acknowledge to his family that he was killed by a fellow soldier, not an enemy combatant.

Tillman turned down millions in contracts to enlist following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and became a walking public recruiting tool, hailed by Congress and the Pentagon “as an example of combat bravery,” The Post reported after his death. President George W. Bush publicly described him as a hero.

His family later accused the military of warping Tillman’s life and death. His brother, fellow Ranger Kevin Tillman, testified in 2007 that the military told “deliberate and calculated lies” to transform the fratricide into an “inspirational message."

Tillman himself feared his potential death would be used in such a way by government officials, his biographer, Jon Krakauer, told The Post in September. Krakauer said Tillman’s death was also used to distract from such problems as the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and an insurgency spinning out of control in Iraq.

In 2007, the Pentagon’s independent watchdog agency said the Army was at fault for how it reported Tillman’s death. “Our failure in fulfilling this duty brought discredit to the Army and compounded the grief suffered by the Tillman family,” the Army’s acting secretary, Peter Geren, said at the time.

Giant flags, welcome home moments and somber tributes — with few clear outcomes

Those flyovers, gigantic U.S. flags, welcome home ceremonies and stirring military tributes at events such as NFL games cost taxpayers more than $50 million from 2012 to 2015, and the Pentagon has struggled to show how effective they are, a Senate report concluded in 2015.

But they do make good Instagram posts.

Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, Republicans from Arizona, dubbed the practice “paid patriotism” in the report, writing that it was especially improper because fans believed “teams are doing this on behalf of the military.”

The Pentagon defended the events as necessary for recruiting. But the report found the Defense Department “doesn’t uniformly measure how and whether the activities under contract are actually contributing to recruiting.” The report also chided the National Guard for spending millions while also urging Congress to buttress its pay and training shortfalls with $100 million in funds.

The military has also long supplied jets for flyovers at events such as the Super Bowl as a way to provide flight time and raise awareness of the military as a career. But this year saw the most aviation-related deaths in the military since 2013, with pilots struggling to overcome past budget cuts, fewer hours of flight time and growing maintenance backlogs.

That raises the question of whether the public relations opportunities afforded by flight demonstrations at sporting events are worth balancing against costs and safety risks, especially as the Army failed to meet its recruiting targets last year.

Read more:

Migrant caravan: U.S. troops at the border will be armed. Here are the rules of engagement.

U.S. says the time to end the Saudi-backed war in Yemen is now