They finally got what they wanted Thursday. But the results may not be what they wanted.
In his resignation letter, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made little secret that he could no longer serve a president who trashes key U.S. alliances and has moved to pull out of both Syria and Afghanistan. After emphasizing issues on which Trump has clearly frustrated him, Mattis wrote, “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
Mattis’s departure is the most striking of Trump’s tenure for two reasons: 1) Mattis might be the most respected individual in the administration, and 2) More than anybody who left before him, Mattis made clear he was resigning in protest over a contentious issue.
But as Trump’s struggles to find a new chief of staff have shown, the upshot is that it’s going to be more and more difficult to draw top Trump administration staffers from the ranks of relatively moderate, experienced and respected institutionalists such as Mattis. Anybody who would serve as Trump’s secretary of defense has to look not just at Mattis’s resignation letter but also at the decision to pull out of Syria in the first place. Trump has reportedly disregarded the advice of basically all of his military advisers. Whoever is signing up for this is signing up to be tied to decisions that people such as Mattis and many Senate Republicans regard as extremely dangerous for national security.
Mattis himself said Trump deserves a secretary of defense who is “better aligned” with the president on key issues, but finding that person could prove problematic. Trump’s noninterventionist and nationalistic foreign policy is something you see much more from ideologues than experienced military figures. To do what Mattis suggested, Trump will have to either go well outside the military mainstream — or select a yes-man or yes-woman.
And to see where this is likely to go, you need only look at the changes among Trump’s Cabinet-level officials.
After Rex Tillerson was fired, Trump installed as his replacement Mike Pompeo, who had taken curiously pro-Trump positions as CIA director — even undercutting his own intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian election interference to echo Trump’s talking points. While Mattis was protesting privately, Pompeo was spinning the Syria decision in Trumpian terms. “The president made an enormous commitment to take down the caliphate, and that has been achieved,” he said on NPR. Pompeo has also been out front in selling Trump’s muted response to Saudi Arabia’s killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi — another decision hawkish Senate Republicans abhor but Pompeo has happily gone along with.
For chief of staff, Trump has selected Mick Mulvaney in an acting role. Mulvaney once called Trump a “terrible human being” but is now reportedly preparing to let Trump be Trump, including breaking down the regimented White House processes instituted by Chief of Staff John F. Kelly.
Kelly, Tillerson and Mattis were the three officials who Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said last year “help separate our country from chaos.” Now all three are out, with at least two of them replaced by much more go-along-to-get-along replacements.
The most high-profile shift toward yes-men is with his attorney general. After Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation and declined to pursue Trump’s requested investigations of Democrats, Trump has picked an acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, who mused about defunding Robert Mueller’s probe and investigating the Clintons. (Whitaker has now refused ethics advice that he also recuse himself.) Then Trump picked a permanent attorney general nominee, William Barr, who we just learned wrote a 20-page memo to the Justice Department attacking Mueller’s obstruction-of-justice probe. It was almost as if each man were auditioning for Trump with their commentary, which in both cases aligns almost perfectly with Trump’s own.
The shift has been similar in lower-profile top administration jobs. After Trump clashed with national security adviser H.R. McMaster, he picked as his replacement John Bolton, who rather quickly cast aside his extremely hawkish foreign policy views on issues such as Russia to meet Trump’s “America First” demands. Same with Trump’s chief economic adviser. Gary Cohn, who questioned some of Trump’s actions, has been replaced by Larry Kudlow, a through-and-through free-trader who is now promoting Trump’s trade wars and protectionism.
The trend lines are clear. As the Trump presidency persists, and as Trump gets bolder and bolder with his willingness to shake things up and do what the “smart people” plead with him not to do, he’s being surrounded more and more by people who won’t bother to plead.
Yes, that might ultimately help bring him down as president — which is the dominoes that Trump’s critics have long wanted to set off with protest resignations. But in the meantime, it means actions such as pulling out of Syria, shutting down the government, and engaging in trade wars that depress the stock market are much more likely to proliferate.
Perhaps it needs to get uglier before it gets better, the critics may reason, but it will get uglier.