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Trump’s favorite general: Can Mattis check an impulsive president and still retain his trust?

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis enters the Democratic policy luncheon just off the Senate Reception Room on Capitol Hill in Washington DC on Jan. 9. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Throughout his 40-year career as a Marine, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis built a reputation as an aggressive warrior, leading a blitz on Baghdad and pushing a reluctant Obama administration to hit back against Iran.

Over the past year, he has learned to play a different role: acting as a check on an impulsive president.

The big question is how long Mattis can continue to act as a force for continuity and caution and still retain influence with a president impatient to hit back at America’s enemies and swiftly win wars.

These days, Mattis’s influence radiates across the government. In places such as Afghanistan and Somalia, he has been a force for stability, resisting the president’s instincts to withdraw. In Iran and North Korea, he has curbed Trump’s desire for a show of military strength.

One tense moment came last May as officials grew increasingly concerned about aggressive Iranian behavior.

For weeks, Mattis had been resisting requests from the White House to provide military options for Iran. Now Trump made clear that he wanted the Pentagon to deliver a range of plans that included striking Iranian ballistic missile factories or hitting Iranian speedboats that routinely harassed U.S. Navy vessels.

“Why can’t we sink them?” Trump would sometimes ask about the boats.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster and his staff laid out the president’s request for Mattis in a conference call, but the defense secretary refused, according to several U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations. At that point, McMaster took Mattis off speakerphone, cleared his staff from the room and continued the conversation.

“It was clear that the call was not going well,” one official said. In the weeks that followed, the options never arrived.

In his first year in the Pentagon, Mattis has been one of the least visible and most consequential members of Trump’s foreign policy team. In Situation Room meetings, he has established himself as a commanding voice, reining in discussions before they devolve into chaos. State Department ambassadors say they have spent more face-to-face time with him than they have their own boss, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

A foreign policy establishment that views Trump as erratic and unreliable uniformly praises Mattis.

“I’m trying to think of a guy who could do the job better than Mattis,” said retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Obama administration. “There might be . . . but I can’t think of one.”

The former general’s most valuable asset may be his relationship with Trump, who has been known to publicly dress down and freeze out subordinates who disappoint him.

Mattis is “doing a great job,” Trump said of his defense secretary during his State of the Union address last week, drawing a rare standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats alike. A visibly uncomfortable Mattis — the only Cabinet secretary Trump mentioned in the speech — nodded slightly and smiled.

Picking his battles

Here's what you need to know about the Trump administration's Pentagon chief. (Video: The Washington Post)

Mattis had been in his office for just a week when Trump made his first visit to the Pentagon.

There, Trump presided over the ceremonial swearing-in of his new defense secretary and signed two executive orders: one relating to military readiness and a second imposing severe restrictions on citizens of certain countries entering the United States. The scope of the immigration order, which came to be known as the “Muslim ban,” and Trump’s decision to sign it at the Pentagon’s “Hall of Heroes” took Mattis’s top staffers by surprise. Mattis had hoped to keep the Pentagon above politics and saw his job as largely apolitical.

The unexpected signing put Mattis and the department at the center of one of the nation’s most divisive political debates. Some members of his staff were angry at being blindsided. If Mattis was upset or uncomfortable, he did not show it. He applauded politely as Trump signed the ban.

During the Obama administration, Mattis had alienated the president and his top staff by pushing for aggressive measures to counter Iranian efforts to sow discord and undermine U.S. allies. The then-four-star general was left off the invitation list to meetings of the National Security Council and in early 2013 was told he was being replaced five months early.

Tough talk that irritated Obama — Mattis boasted of the U.S. military’s ability to put Iran’s navy “at the bottom of the ocean” — has won him credibility with Trump.

Even before he was confirmed as defense secretary, Mattis’s Democratic admirers in Congress warned him to stay close to Trump to prevent the president or his aides from doing something foolish.

“I called him and said, ‘Trump has no idea what he’s doing but isn’t afraid to do it. You’re across the river, and they’re across the hall,’ ” said Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, referring to Trump’s top advisers. Smith recalled counseling Mattis: “Your job is to make sure these morons don’t get up in the morning and advance some lamebrained idea.”

Mattis’s top aides said they were struck by how much time he spent at the White House with the president during his first months in the job. When he was not traveling, officials said, the defense secretary was at the White House at least three or four times a week.

Even as Mattis has expressed views contrary to those of the president, on the efficacy of torture or the need for diplomacy with North Korea, he has managed to escape Trump’s wrath.

Before taking over the Pentagon, he often preached: “Loyalty really counts when there’s a hundred reasons not to be loyal.” Mattis has held to that ideal in the battles with the White House that he has lost.

In meetings with the president, Mattis often worked to acknowledge “the emotional essence” of Trump’s arguments and to restate them in ways that were more palatable or in some cases consistent with international laws on armed conflict, officials said.

In December, when Trump decided to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, against the advice of Mattis and Tillerson, the defense secretary called a senior U.S. official to explain the decision.

The official asked why the administration would make such an inflammatory move, which could put U.S. personnel at risk. Mattis paused for what seemed like 15 seconds, the official said, and then delivered the administration’s line.

By picking his battles and staying out of the media spotlight, Mattis has built influence throughout the government. He has won admirers at Foggy Bottom, the home of the State Department, by reserving a seat for State Department officials at his meetings with foreign defense ministers. The same officials said they have struggled to get into similar meetings with Tillerson and his foreign counterparts.

Under Mattis, the military has gained greater autonomy on the battlefield than it has had in a decade. Trump’s National Security Council largely ignored U.S. policy in Somalia until Mattis pushed last year to lift rules requiring commanders to get White House sign-off on airstrikes in the country.

“We had no meetings on Africa until Mattis wanted an expansion of authorities,” said a senior U.S. official familiar with the process. “When Mattis wanted to do something, he’d send a memo to [McMaster]. Then there would be a rush to schedule meetings. That was the only time anyone cared about Somalia.”

Just before Christmas, Mattis persuaded Trump to scale back a hotly debated order that had given U.S. ambassadors in places such as Somalia, Libya and Yemen the ability to call a pause in airstrikes. Military officials had objected to the earlier measure, which they thought interfered with the chain of command.

In contentious meetings last summer on Afghanistan, Mattis and his top aides often dominated the process. He spoke regularly to mid-level aides representing the Defense Department at White House meetings so that they could forcefully advocate the Pentagon’s position. By contrast, senior representatives from the State Department often seemed to have little clue where their secretary stood, officials said.

In one chaotic Situation Room meeting on Afghanistan policy, McMaster shouted at Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist at the time, accusing him of deliberately misrepresenting McMaster’s position.

“You’re a liar!” McMaster yelled, according to two officials at the meeting.

Mattis ended the confrontation by grabbing McMaster’s knee and advising him to be quiet, the officials said.

The scene prompted a shocked Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff at the time, to turn to a colleague and mouth “W.T.F.”

In the end, Trump decided to nearly double the size of the force in Afghanistan to 15,000 troops. In announcing his decision, Trump said he was acting against his “original instinct.”

His final decision gave Mattis and his commanders almost everything they wanted to expand the longest war in U.S. history.

'You just hold the line'

One of the biggest questions surrounding Mattis after his first year in office is how he plans to use his power and a surging Pentagon budget to change the world’s most powerful military.

Part of his influence and widespread support throughout Washington can be traced to his inscrutability and relative absence from an increasingly partisan political scrum.

Mattis has largely avoided the Pentagon media briefing room and has resisted White House requests to represent the administration on Sunday-morning talk shows. His aides said that Mattis’s low profile is a product of his determination to focus as much time as possible on understanding the inner workings of the Pentagon, reading the latest intelligence and talking with his commanders.

On occasion, he will confess to pulling all-nighters, telling aides the next morning that he had stayed up reading and was feeling “a little rummy.”

His absence from the spotlight and the Washington scene has meant that he has not had to defend some of the president’s more controversial statements and divisive tweets.

To the extent that he has weighed in on events, Mattis has displayed a broad disdain for the country’s politics, and, at times, seemed to set the military above the fray.

“You’re a great example for our country right now, and it’s got problems,” Mattis told troops in Jordan last summer during an impromptu speech delivered a few days after the racially charged riots in Charlottesville. “You know it and I know it. It’s got problems that we don’t have in the military. And you just hold the line, my fine young soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines — you just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.”

Shortly after those remarks and Trump’s initial reluctance to denounce white supremacists in Charlottesville, Mattis’s closest staffers would question what he really thought of the president’s handling of the Charlottesville clashes and other issues. Their conversations between meetings and over beers became something of a parlor game.

“We never heard him say a negative word,” one official said.

Mattis’s plans for the military are somewhat clearer. Trump’s 2019 budget, to be unveiled in mid-February, is expected to include $716 billion for national defense, a 7 percent increase over Trump’s proposed 2018 budget and a 13 percent boost over 2017 funding levels.

Mattis has said that he plans to use the additional money to prepare the military for a potential conflict with a major power such as Russia or China.

“Today we are emerging from a period of strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding,” he wrote in the introduction to his National Defense Strategy last month. Inside the Pentagon, there is a growing worry about advanced Chinese hypersonic missiles that can sink U.S. aircraft carriers and increasingly sophisticated Russian air defense systems. Some of those weapons could threaten U.S. forces as soon as 2025, according to U.S. intelligence estimates.

“The American way of war is to establish air, space and maritime superiority and have your way,” said Michèle Flournoy, a senior official in the Pentagon during the Obama administration. “How do you fight without that advantage up front? It’s a big challenge for Mattis.”

Even at a time of rising defense budgets, reorienting the military to deal with these new threats will require pressing the services to scale back long-favored weapons systems and winning over lawmakers whose districts could lose jobs if programs are scrapped.

For Mattis, it will potentially mean mastering the details of the Pentagon’s arcane procurement system and bureaucracy, skills he never developed while focusing on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Former defense secretary Leon Panetta said Mattis, as beloved as he might be in the military, may struggle to leave lasting change at the Defense Department. “His biggest challenge is trying to make sure that this president doesn’t make a careless decision that could really jeopardize our national security, and to that extent, he’s constrained in terms of what he’s able to do,” Panetta said.

Although Trump has given the military broad latitude on the battlefield, he also has raised pointed questions about the wisdom of the wars being fought by the United States. Last year, after a delegation of Iraqi leaders visited him in the Oval Office, Trump jokingly referred to them as “the most accomplished group of thieves he’d ever met,” according to one former U.S. official.

He has repeatedly pressed Mattis and McMaster in stark terms to explain why U.S. troops are in Somalia. “Can’t we just pull out?” he has asked, according to U.S. officials.

Last summer, Trump was weighing plans to send more soldiers to Afghanistan and was contemplating the military’s request for more-aggressive measures to target Islamic State affiliates in North Africa. In a meeting with his top national security aides, the president grew frustrated.

“You guys want me to send troops everywhere,” Trump said, according to officials in the Situation Room meeting. “What’s the justification?”

“Sir, we’re doing it to prevent a bomb from going off in Times Square,” Mattis replied.

The response angered Trump, who insisted that Mattis could make the same argument about almost any country on the planet.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions echoed Trump’s concerns, asking whether winning was even possible in a place such as Afghanistan or Somalia.

It was Mattis who made the argument that would, for the moment at least, sway Trump to embrace the status quo — which has held for the past two presidents.

“Unfortunately, sir, you have no choice,” Mattis told Trump, according to officials. “You will be a wartime president.”