The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Syria disagreement with Trump used as a pretext for Mattis’s departure as Pentagon chief, new book says

“Holding the Line,” by a former staff member, details the retired general losing influence with Trump.

Jim Mattis, then defense secretary, listens to a question during a meeting at the Pentagon last year. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP) (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Increasingly embattled and isolated, then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis used a December disagreement with President Trump over a military withdrawal from Syria as a “pretext to announce a decision that he had made months before to cut his losses and move on,” according to a new book by a retired military officer who worked on Mattis’s staff.

Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon With Secretary Mattis” details rising tensions between Mattis and the president, members of Congress, and the journalists who covered him as his allies in the Trump administration were dismissed and he allegedly was “iced out” by the White House. It also describes Mattis attempting to head off directives from the president that could thrust the military further into politics and blocking decisions that he saw as illegal.

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Mattis said wryly that he’d “rather swallow acid” than see the multimillion-dollar military parade that Trump wanted, the book said. It also alleged that Trump sought to “screw” Amazon — whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post — by locking the company out of bidding for the Pentagon’s $10 billion cloud networking contract known as JEDI, and that the secretary demurred.

“We’re not going to do that,” Mattis told Pentagon officials, according to the book. “This will be done by the book, both legally and ethically.”

The book’s author is retired Navy commander Guy Snodgrass, a former fighter pilot who served as a speechwriter and director of communications for Mattis.

Mattis did not respond directly to a request for comment. An assistant, Candace Currier, said in a statement that Mattis has not read the book and does not intend to. She called Snodgrass, who ran the speechwriter team for several months, a “junior staffer who took notes in some meetings but played no role in decision making.”

Currier said that Snodgrass was appointed to a position of trust and “surreptitiously taking notes without authorization for a self-promoting personal project is a clear violation of that trust.

“He may receive a few brief moments of attention for this book,” she said. “But those moments will be greatly outweighed by the fact that to get them, he surrendered his honor.”

Snodgrass declined to comment about the book on Tuesday night, citing its release schedule. He wrote on Twitter that he had been at the Pentagon on Tuesday and was greeted by an Army colonel who pulled him aside and thanked him for “being willing to tell our story."

“I was floored … and grateful,” he tweeted.

On Wednesday evening, after the criticism from Mattis’s team surfaced, Snodgrass posted a citation he received for an award, the Defense Superior Service Medal. It credited him with playing a “vital and influential role in the Department of Defense’s strategic messaging” and “leading the Secretary’s speechwriting staff.”

The White House did not respond to requests for comment. Other senior officials who worked for Mattis, including his chief of staff, retired Rear Adm. Kevin Sweeney; and his former top military adviser, Adm. Craig Faller, either declined to comment or could not be reached.

“ADM Faller has not read the book, and we will not be commenting on it,” said Army Col. Amanda Azubuike, a spokeswoman for Faller, in an email.

In August, Snodgrass sued the Defense Department, alleging that the Pentagon was dragging out its standard pre-publication process to make sure his work does not include classified material after Mattis raised objections about the book to Snodgrass. The department cleared the book for release on Sept. 11, and it is set to be released next week.

The resulting work, a copy of which was obtained by The Post, is promoted as “an insider’s sometimes shocking account” of inner workings at the Pentagon, and it follows insider books by several former Trump administration officials who worked at the White House.

Mattis published a book of his own in September, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,” but it only brushed on his time working for Trump and focused instead on lessons learned during his 41-year career as a Marine officer. He has said little that is critical about the president publicly, though he did mock him in a speech this month.

“I earned my spurs on the battlefield,” Mattis said. “Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.”

Of Mattis’s departure, Snodgrass wrote that the framing of the decision by the Pentagon and some media outlets as a “spur-of-the-moment decision made in a final moment of passion” about Trump’s planned Syria withdrawal “wasn’t quite right.” Mattis’s “outrage over Syria” was real, Snodgrass wrote, but the situation was more complicated.

Snodgrass recalled going to Mattis’s office one day in summer 2018 to coordinate his schedule with Mattis’s, and being admonished to keep his voice down. Mattis was meeting with John F. Kelly, a fellow retired Marine general, who was then Trump’s chief of staff. The meeting wasn’t listed on any schedule and was about departures, Mattis’s scheduler told him. A look at Mattis’s schedule for 2019 showed that he had nothing significant planned.

“It didn’t take long before others around the secretary’s personal staff started to catch on, especially those planning events months into the future,” Snodgrass wrote. “Several approached me in late summer, asking what I knew. I demurred. It wasn’t my story to tell, nor would my telling it have improved morale.”

That story contradicts reassurances last fall that Mattis planned to stay in his job. Even after Trump said last October in a “60 Minutes” interview that “it could be” that Mattis was leaving, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White said that he “is not going anywhere.”

Snodgrass joined Mattis’s staff as an officer in April 2017, several months after the Trump administration took office. While Snodgrass found Trump’s “ethics and character appalling,” he wrote, he admired Mattis. Still, Snodgrass wrote, he was “aware that working for the secretary of defense would effectively be a political job in the Trump administration.”

The book raised a number of issues that have been reported before, including concerns at the Pentagon that Mattis’s staff compromised the principle of civilian control of the military by relying on too many military officers. Mattis’s penchant for keeping staffs small, coupled with the Pentagon’s struggle to find political appointees and get them confirmed, left numerous staff members working 14-hour days before burning out.

In March 2018, Mattis lost administration allies when Trump fired then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser. While Mattis’s relationship with McMaster had been “strained at best” because of the Army general’s “forceful” personality and tendency to lecture people, Snodgrass wrote, the departures left Mattis exposed.

“The White House is not to be trusted right now,” Mattis told staff members afterward, the book said. “It’s too undisciplined at the moment.”

The former speechwriter also described unreported scenes inside a Pentagon meeting with Trump on Jan. 18, 2018, that have received a fair amount of media coverage. When the Afghanistan war came up, Snodgrass recalled, Trump unloaded.

“Seriously, who gives a s--- about Afghanistan?” Trump said, according to the book. “So far we’re in for $7 trillion, fellas … $7 trillion including Iraq. Worst decision ever and we’re stuck with it. We could just get out of 90 percent of our commitments and countries, and just bring it all home.”

In the same meeting, Trump raised the prospect of having a military parade, and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it would cost a lot and have bad optics by resembling events held by authoritarian regimes in Russia and North Korea, the book said.

“But … think about the spirit!” Trump responded, according to the book.

As the relationship between Mattis and Trump frayed, Snodgrass wrote, so did morale on Mattis’s staff. Sweeney, the chief of staff, and Faller, the senior officer on Mattis’s staff, would “berate” people when Mattis was in a “sour” mood, the book said.

Snodgrass wrote that he also watched Mattis’s relationship with the media begin to falter, especially after the departure of a trusted senior adviser, Sally Donnelly. While the Pentagon said she wanted to return to the private sector, Sweeney, Faller and White had started a “whispering campaign” against her, alleging without sharing evidence that she might be leaking information to the media, Snodgrass alleged.

Snodgrass wrote that White, the Pentagon spokeswoman, was “loathed by the press” and used assignments traveling with Mattis as an incentive for journalists not to write negative stories.

“‘Never forget, Bus. The press is the enemy,” Snodgrass recalled White saying, using his call sign. “They are not your friend.’”

White said in a statement that comments attributed to her in the book “are not only false, they are insulting.” She has worked for and with the press for nearly her entire life in several different capacities, she said, and a “respect for the role of a free press in our society has underpinned every decision I have made and every piece of advice I have given.”

She added: “To be clear, I did not, nor would I, ever call the press, ‘enemy. I have not read it, but if this libelous quote attributed to me is any indication, this book is the product of a despicable and malicious imagination."

The book also described Snodgrass’s personal falling-out with Mattis, Sweeney and Faller after he declined to take a Navy assignment that would have put him in line to someday command an aircraft carrier. After years of travel, Snodgrass wrote, he wanted to take a different assignment that let him spend more time with family.

After he left the Navy, Snodgrass stayed on Mattis’s staff as a civilian for several months and was offered another job in the Pentagon outside Mattis’s inner circle. It was blocked by Sweeney, Snodgrass alleged. He appealed to Mattis directly in an email for support, he wrote, but received none and resigned instead.