This article is adapted from “A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump’s Testing of America,” which will be published on Jan. 21 by Penguin Press.
Hanging prominently on one of the walls is The Peacemakers, a painting that depicts an 1865 Civil War strategy session with President Abraham Lincoln and his three service chiefs — Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, and Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter. One hundred fifty-two years after Lincoln hatched plans to preserve the Union, President Trump’s advisers staged an intervention inside the Tank to try to preserve the world order.
By that point, six months into his administration, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had grown alarmed by gaping holes in Trump’s knowledge of history, especially the key alliances forged following World War II. Trump had dismissed allies as worthless, cozied up to authoritarian regimes in Russia and elsewhere, and advocated withdrawing troops from strategic outposts and active theaters alike.
Trump organized his unorthodox worldview under the simplistic banner of “America First,” but Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn feared his proposals were rash, barely considered, and a danger to America’s superpower standing. They also felt that many of Trump’s impulsive ideas stemmed from his lack of familiarity with U.S. history and, even, where countries were located. To have a useful discussion with him, the trio agreed, they had to create a basic knowledge, a shared language.
So on July 20, 2017, Mattis invited Trump to the Tank for what he, Tillerson, and Cohn had carefully organized as a tailored tutorial. What happened inside the Tank that day crystallized the commander in chief’s berating, derisive and dismissive manner, foreshadowing decisions such as the one earlier this month that brought the United States to the brink of war with Iran. The Tank meeting was a turning point in Trump’s presidency. Rather than getting him to appreciate America’s traditional role and alliances, Trump began to tune out and eventually push away the experts who believed their duty was to protect the country by restraining his more dangerous impulses.
The episode has been documented numerous times, but subsequent reporting reveals a more complete picture of the moment and the chilling effect Trump’s comments and hostility had on the nation’s military and national security leadership.
Just before 10 a.m. on a scorching summer Thursday, Trump arrived at the Pentagon. He stepped out of his motorcade, walked along a corridor with portraits honoring former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, and stepped inside the Tank. The uniformed officers greeted their commander in chief. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph F. Dunford Jr. sat in the seat of honor midway down the table, because this was his room, and Trump sat at the head of the table facing a projection screen. Mattis and the newly confirmed deputy defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, sat to the president’s left, with Vice President Pence and Tillerson to his right. Down the table sat the leaders of the military branches, along with Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon was in the outer ring of chairs with other staff, taking his seat just behind Mattis and directly in Trump’s line of sight.
Mattis, Cohn, and Tillerson and their aides decided to use maps, graphics, and charts to tutor the president, figuring they would help keep him from getting bored. Mattis opened with a slide show punctuated by lots of dollar signs. Mattis devised a strategy to use terms the impatient president, schooled in real estate, would appreciate to impress upon him the value of U.S. investments abroad. He sought to explain why U.S. troops were deployed in so many regions and why America’s safety hinged on a complex web of trade deals, alliances, and bases across the globe.
An opening line flashed on the screen, setting the tone: “The post-war international rules-based order is the greatest gift of the greatest generation.” Mattis then gave a 20-minute briefing on the power of the NATO alliance to stabilize Europe and keep the United States safe. Bannon thought to himself, “Not good. Trump is not going to like that one bit.” The internationalist language Mattis was using was a trigger for Trump.
“Oh, baby, this is going to be f---ing wild,” Bannon thought. “If you stood up and threatened to shoot [Trump], he couldn’t say ‘postwar rules-based international order.’ It’s just not the way he thinks.”
For the next 90 minutes, Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn took turns trying to emphasize their points, pointing to their charts and diagrams. They showed where U.S. personnel were positioned, at military bases, CIA stations, and embassies, and how U.S. deployments fended off the threats of terror cells, nuclear blasts, and destabilizing enemies in places including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Korea Peninsula, and Syria. Cohn spoke for about 20 minutes about the value of free trade with America’s allies, emphasizing how he saw each trade agreement working together as part of an overall structure to solidify U.S. economic and national security.
Trump appeared peeved by the schoolhouse vibe but also allergic to the dynamic of his advisers talking at him. His ricocheting attention span led him to repeatedly interrupt the lesson. He heard an adviser say a word or phrase and then seized on that to interject with his take. For instance, the word “base” prompted him to launch in to say how “crazy” and “stupid” it was to pay for bases in some countries.
Trump’s first complaint was to repeat what he had vented about to his national security adviser months earlier: South Korea should pay for a $10 billion missile defense system that the United States built for it. The system was designed to shoot down any short- and medium-range ballistic missiles from North Korea to protect South Korea and American troops stationed there. But Trump argued that the South Koreans should pay for it, proposing that the administration pull U.S. troops out of the region or bill the South Koreans for their protection.
“We should charge them rent,” Trump said of South Korea. “We should make them pay for our soldiers. We should make money off of everything.”
Trump proceeded to explain that NATO, too, was worthless. U.S. generals were letting the allied member countries get away with murder, he said, and they owed the United States a lot of money after not living up to their promise of paying their dues.
“They’re in arrears,” Trump said, reverting to the language of real estate. He lifted both his arms at his sides in frustration. Then he scolded top officials for the untold millions of dollars he believed they had let slip through their fingers by allowing allies to avoid their obligations.
“We are owed money you haven’t been collecting!” Trump told them. “You would totally go bankrupt if you had to run your own business.”
Mattis wasn’t trying to convince the president of anything, only to explain and provide facts. Now things were devolving quickly. The general tried to calmly explain to the president that he was not quite right. The NATO allies didn’t owe the United States back rent, he said. The truth was more complicated. NATO had a nonbinding goal that members should pay at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their defenses. Only five of the countries currently met that goal, but it wasn’t as if they were shorting the United States on the bill.
More broadly, Mattis argued, the NATO alliance was not serving only to protect western Europe. It protected America, too. “This is what keeps us safe,” Mattis said. Cohn tried to explain to Trump that he needed to see the value of the trade deals. “These are commitments that help keep us safe,” Cohn said.
Bannon interjected. “Stop, stop, stop,” he said. “All you guys talk about all these great things, they’re all our partners, I want you to name me now one country and one company that’s going to have his back.”
Trump then repeated a threat he’d made countless times before. He wanted out of the Iran nuclear deal that President Obama had struck in 2015, which called for Iran to reduce its uranium stockpile and cut its nuclear program.
“It’s the worst deal in history!” Trump declared.
“Well, actually . . .,” Tillerson interjected.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Trump said, cutting off the secretary of state before he could explain some of the benefits of the agreement. “They’re cheating. They’re building. We’re getting out of it. I keep telling you, I keep giving you time, and you keep delaying me. I want out of it.”
Before they could debate the Iran deal, Trump erupted to revive another frequent complaint: the war in Afghanistan, which was now America’s longest war. He demanded an explanation for why the United States hadn’t won in Afghanistan yet, now 16 years after the nation began fighting there in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Trump unleashed his disdain, calling Afghanistan a “loser war.” That phrase hung in the air and disgusted not only the military leaders at the table but also the men and women in uniform sitting along the back wall behind their principals. They all were sworn to obey their commander in chief’s commands, and here he was calling the war they had been fighting a loser war.
“You’re all losers,” Trump said. “You don’t know how to win anymore.”
Trump questioned why the United States couldn’t get some oil as payment for the troops stationed in the Persian Gulf. “We spent $7 trillion; they’re ripping us off,” Trump boomed. “Where is the f---ing oil?”
Trump seemed to be speaking up for the voters who elected him, and several attendees thought they heard Bannon in Trump’s words. Bannon had been trying to persuade Trump to withdraw forces by telling him, “The American people are saying we can’t spend a trillion dollars a year on this. We just can’t. It’s going to bankrupt us.”
“And not just that, the deplorables don’t want their kids in the South China Sea at the 38th parallel or in Syria, in Afghanistan, in perpetuity,” Bannon would add, invoking Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” reference to Trump supporters.
Trump mused about removing General John Nicholson, the U.S. commander in charge of troops in Afghanistan. “I don’t think he knows how to win,” the president said, impugning Nicholson, who was not present at the meeting.
Dunford tried to come to Nicholson’s defense, but the mild-mannered general struggled to convey his points to the irascible president.
“Mr. President, that’s just not . . .,” Dunford started. “We’ve been under different orders.”
Dunford sought to explain that he hadn’t been charged with annihilating the enemy in Afghanistan but was instead following a strategy started by the Obama administration to gradually reduce the military presence in the country in hopes of training locals to maintain a stable government so that eventually the United States could pull out. Trump shot back in more plain language.
“I want to win,” he said. “We don’t win any wars anymore . . . We spend $7 trillion, everybody else got the oil and we’re not winning anymore.”
Trump by now was in one of his rages. He was so angry that he wasn’t taking many breaths. All morning, he had been coarse and cavalier, but the next several things he bellowed went beyond that description. They stunned nearly everyone in the room, and some vowed that they would never repeat them. Indeed, they have not been reported until now.
“I wouldn’t go to war with you people,” Trump told the assembled brass.
Addressing the room, the commander in chief barked, “You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
For a president known for verbiage he euphemistically called “locker room talk,” this was the gravest insult he could have delivered to these people, in this sacred space. The flag officers in the room were shocked. Some staff began looking down at their papers, rearranging folders, almost wishing themselves out of the room. A few considered walking out. They tried not to reveal their revulsion on their faces, but questions raced through their minds. “How does the commander in chief say that?” one thought. “What would our worst adversaries think if they knew he said this?”
This was a president who had been labeled a “draft dodger” for avoiding service in the Vietnam War under questionable circumstances. Trump was a young man born of privilege and in seemingly perfect health: six feet two inches with a muscular build and a flawless medical record. He played several sports, including football. Then, in 1968 at age 22, he obtained a diagnosis of bone spurs in his heels that exempted him from military service just as the United States was drafting men his age to fulfill massive troop deployments to Vietnam.
Tillerson in particular was stunned by Trump’s diatribe and began visibly seething. For too many minutes, others in the room noticed, he had been staring straight, dumbfounded, at Mattis, who was speechless, his head bowed down toward the table. Tillerson thought to himself, “Gosh darn it, Jim, say something. Why aren’t you saying something?”
But, as he would later tell close aides, Tillerson realized in that moment that Mattis was genetically a Marine, unable to talk back to his commander in chief, no matter what nonsense came out of his mouth.
The more perplexing silence was from Pence, a leader who should have been able to stand up to Trump. Instead, one attendee thought, “He’s sitting there frozen like a statue. Why doesn’t he stop the president?” Another recalled the vice president was “a wax museum guy.” From the start of the meeting, Pence looked as if he wanted to escape and put an end to the president’s torrent. Surely, he disagreed with Trump’s characterization of military leaders as “dopes and babies,” considering his son, Michael, was a Marine first lieutenant then training for his naval aviator wings. But some surmised Pence feared getting crosswise with Trump. “A total deer in the headlights,” recalled a third attendee.
Others at the table noticed Trump’s stream of venom had taken an emotional toll. So many people in that room had gone to war and risked their lives for their country, and now they were being dressed down by a president who had not. They felt sick to their stomachs. Tillerson told others he thought he saw a woman in the room silently crying. He was furious and decided he couldn’t stand it another minute. His voice broke into Trump’s tirade, this one about trying to make money off U.S. troops.
“No, that’s just wrong,” the secretary of state said. “Mr. President, you’re totally wrong. None of that is true.”
Tillerson’s father and uncle had both been combat veterans, and he was deeply proud of their service.
“The men and women who put on a uniform don’t do it to become soldiers of fortune,” Tillerson said. “That’s not why they put on a uniform and go out and die . . . They do it to protect our freedom.”
There was silence in the Tank. Several military officers in the room were grateful to the secretary of state for defending them when no one else would. The meeting soon ended and Trump walked out, saying goodbye to a group of servicemen lining the corridor as he made his way to his motorcade waiting outside. Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn were deflated. Standing in the hall with a small cluster of people he trusted, Tillerson finally let down his guard.
“He’s a f---ing moron,” the secretary of state said of the president.
The plan by Mattis, Tillerson, and Cohn to train the president to appreciate the internationalist view had clearly backfired.
“We were starting to get out on the wrong path, and we really needed to have a course correction and needed to educate, to teach, to help him understand the reason and basis for a lot of these things,” said one senior official involved in the planning. “We needed to change how he thinks about this, to course correct. Everybody was on board, 100 percent agreed with that sentiment. [But] they were dismayed and in shock when not only did it not have the intended effect, but he dug in his heels and pushed it even further on the spectrum, further solidifying his views.”
A few days later, Pence’s national security adviser, Andrea Thompson, a retired Army colonel who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq, reached out to thank Tillerson for speaking up on behalf of the military and the public servants who had been in the Tank. By September 2017, she would leave the White House and join Tillerson at Foggy Bottom as undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs.
The Tank meeting had so thoroughly shocked the conscience of military leaders that they tried to keep it a secret. At the Aspen Security Forum two days later, longtime NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell asked Dunford how Trump had interacted during the Tank meeting. The Joint Chiefs chairman misleadingly described the meeting, skipping over the fireworks.
“He asked a lot of hard questions, and the one thing he does is question some fundamental assumptions that we make as military leaders — and he will come in and question those,” Dunford told Mitchell on July 22. “It’s a pretty energetic and an interactive dialogue.”
One victim of the Tank meeting was Trump’s relationship with Tillerson, which forever after was strained. The secretary of state came to see it as the beginning of the end. It would only worsen when news that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” was first reported in October 2017 by NBC News.
Trump once again gathered his generals and top diplomats in December 2017 for a meeting as part of the administration’s ongoing strategy talks about troop deployments in Afghanistan in the Situation Room, a secure meeting room on the ground floor of the West Wing. Trump didn’t like the Situation Room as much as the Pentagon’s Tank, because he didn’t think it had enough gravitas. It just wasn’t impressive.
But there Trump was, struggling to come up with a new Afghanistan policy and frustrated that so many U.S. forces were deployed in so many places around the world. The conversation began to tilt in the same direction as it had in the Tank back in July.
“All these countries need to start paying us for the troops we are sending to their countries. We need to be making a profit,” Trump said. “We could turn a profit on this.”
Dunford tried to explain to the president once again, gently, that troops deployed in these regions provided stability there, which helped make America safer. Another officer chimed in that charging other countries for U.S. soldiers would be against the law.
“But it just wasn’t working,” one former Trump aide recalled. “Nothing worked.”
Following the Tank meeting, Tillerson had told his aides that he would never silently tolerate such demeaning talk from Trump about making money off the deployments of U.S. soldiers. Tillerson’s father, at the age of 17, had committed to enlist in the Navy on his next birthday, wanting so much to serve his country in World War II. His great-uncle was a career officer in the Navy as well. Both men had been on his mind, Tillerson told aides, when Trump unleashed his tirade in the Tank and again when he repeated those points in the Situation Room in December.
“We need to get our money back,” Trump told his assembled advisers.
That was it. Tillerson stood up. But when he did so, he turned his back to the president and faced the flag officers and the rest of the aides in the room. He didn’t want a repeat of the scene in the Tank.
“I’ve never put on a uniform, but I know this,” Tillerson said. “Every person who has put on a uniform, the people in this room, they don’t do it to make a buck. They did it for their country, to protect us. I want everyone to be clear about how much we as a country value their service.”
Tillerson’s rebuke made Trump angry. He got a little red in the face. But the president decided not to engage Tillerson at that moment. He would wait to take him on another day.
Later that evening, after 8:00, Tillerson was working in his office at the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters, preparing for the next day. The phone rang. It was Dunford. The Joint Chiefs chairman’s voice was unsteady with emotion. Dunford had much earlier joked with Tillerson that in past administrations the secretaries of state and Defense Department leaders wouldn’t be caught dead walking on the same side of the street, for their rivalry was that fierce. But now, as both men served Trump, they were brothers joined against what they saw as disrespect for service members. Dunford thanked Tillerson for standing up for them in the Situation Room.
“You took the body blows for us,” Dunford said. “Punch after punch. Thank you. I will never forget it.”
Tillerson, Dunford, and Mattis would not take those body blows for much longer. They failed to rein in Trump’s impulses or to break through what they regarded as the president’s stubborn, even dangerous insistence that he knew best. Piece by piece, the guardrails that had hemmed in the chaos of Trump’s presidency crumpled.
In March 2018, Trump abruptly fired Tillerson while the secretary of state was halfway across the globe on a sensitive diplomatic mission to Africa to ease tensions caused by Trump’s demeaning insults about African countries. Trump gave Tillerson no rationale for his firing, and afterward acted as if they were buddies, inviting him to come by the Oval Office to take a picture and have the president sign it. Tillerson never went.
Mattis continued serving as the defense secretary, but the president’s sudden decision in December 2018 to withdraw troops from Syria and abandon America’s Kurdish allies there — one the president soon reversed, only to remake 10 months later — inspired him to resign. Mattis saw Trump’s desired withdrawal as an assault on a soldier’s code. “He began to feel like he was becoming complicit,” recalled one of the secretary’s confidants.
The media interpretation of Mattis’ resignation letter as a scathing rebuke of Trump’s worldview brought the president’s anger to a boiling point. Trump decided to remove Mattis two months ahead of the secretary’s chosen departure date. His treatment of Mattis upset the secretary’s staff. They decided to arrange the biggest clap out they could. The event was a tradition for all departing secretaries. They wanted a line of Pentagon personnel that stretched for a mile applauding Mattis as he left for the last time. It was going to be “yuge,” staffers joked, borrowing from Trump’s glossary.
But Mattis would not allow it.
“No, we are not doing that,” he told his aides. “You don’t understand the president. I work with him. You don’t know him like I do. He will take it out on Shanahan and Dunford.”
Dunford stayed on until September 2019, retiring at the conclusion of his four-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. One of Dunford’s first public acts after leaving office was to defend a military officer attacked by Trump, Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council official who testified in the House impeachment inquiry about his worries over Trump’s conduct with Ukraine. Trump dismissed Vindman as a “Never Trumper,” but Dunford stepped forward to praise the Purple Heart recipient as “a professional, competent, patriotic, and loyal officer. He has made an extraordinary contribution to the security of our nation.”
By then, however, Trump had become a president entirely unrestrained. He had replaced his raft of seasoned advisers with a cast of enablers who executed his orders and engaged his obsessions. They saw their mission as telling the president yes.