Former defense secretary Jim Mattis stopped by NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday as part of the promotional tour for his new memoir. At stop after stop on this tour, Mattis has been asked to comment on whether he disagrees with the president on specific issues, and each time he has ducked. Sunday was no different, and his excuses for not commenting yet again held up poorly.
The first dodge came when host Chuck Todd asked Mattis if he was “concerned that, while the country speaks with one voice, on a governmental level, when it comes to Russia, that the political leader is not?” Mattis dodged, “I won’t make political assessments right now.” His excuse? “Remember that the Defense Department stays outside of politics for a reason. There’s a long-standing tradition, why you do not want the military to be engaged in politics.” That’s true — for active-duty military. There’s just as much precedent for retired military personnel joining the political sphere, and even becoming president themselves. Besides, Mattis omits the fact that defense secretary is a political appointment. The moment he accepted that position, he entered the political sphere; he cannot now claim to be outside of politics.
Worse yet, Mattis even admits that there are things he is deliberately withholding. When Todd observed to him “that you do have more to say. You just don’t believe this period of time is appropriate,” Mattis would only reply, “Well, Chuck, I have a lot of faith in the American people. They know how to vote. They don’t need military generals telling them that they think this political assessment is the one they should go with, or the other one is, that sort of thing, especially as corrosive as the political debate has grown in the country.”
Again, the “I’m just a soldier” excuse fails for the two reasons noted earlier. Beyond that, though it is good to know Mattis thinks highly of his fellow Americans, that’s rather contradicted by his withholding valuable observations about the president’s behavior behind closed doors. Instead, Mattis plays unnecessarily coy, as in this exchange:
CHUCK TODD:Is America safer today because of this decision in Syria?GENERAL JAMES MATTIS:That’s a complex question. I would say, America’s always safer when it builds the trust and a sense of reliability among our allies that we’re reliable.
Considering that the troop withdrawal in Syria is a pretty clear case of betraying U.S.-allied Kurdish forces, the second sentence there makes clear what Mattis really thinks. Saying “that’s a complex question” just undercuts the force of the statement and essentially guts it of any value.
That wasn’t the only cryptic observation from Mattis. Another more worrying one came later:
GENERAL JAMES MATTIS:This would be the worst time, I think, for military people to step out like that. But also, the Constitution, I think, is a very hearty document. I’ve got a love affair with the U.S. Constitution. I actually used to read it about once a year and always found something new in it. So I would —CHUCK TODD:I always carry one with me, right here —GENERAL JAMES MATTIS:And I admire that.CHUCK TODD:— all the time because you need it.GENERAL JAMES MATTIS:I had a pocket version, myself. I didn’t carry it all the time. But I carried it a lot of days.CHUCK TODD:I used to not carry it all the time. I need it more often, these days.GENERAL JAMES MATTIS:We all need it today.
Saying we all need the Constitution these days is a statement heavy with implication that something is gravely wrong with U.S. democracy. Yet Mattis won’t tell us if that’s actually the case or why he’s suggesting that. It’s about as helpful as a traffic sign saying “watch out!” without telling you what to watch out for.
To be fair to Mattis, he is far from the only former Trump administration official who has remained unfortunately silent about the president. Former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and former director of national intelligence Daniel Coats, among others, have all remained quiet even as rumors continue to circulate about their dim views of President Trump and/or his policies. Their silence helps no one. Now is the time for Mattis and others to speak out.