WASHINGTON — President Trump, who once called Defense Secretary Jim Mattis “one of the most effective generals that we’ve had in many, many decades,” has now affixed a more ominous label to the retired four-star Marine general: “Democrat.”
In a “60 Minutes” interview broadcast on CBS Sunday night, Trump grouped his own defense secretary with the political party that the president now describes at every turn as “an angry, left-wing mob” bent on destroying the country.
“I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said.
But the president added that he did not know whether Mattis would be the next major departure from his administration, following the abrupt resignation announcement last week by Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and the expected exit this fall of Don McGahn, the White House counsel.
“He may leave,” Trump said of Mattis, though he called him “a good guy” and insisted the two men still had “a very good relationship.”
“I mean, at some point, everybody leaves,” the president said. “Everybody. People leave. That’s Washington.”
Mattis has been seen as one of the “adults” in the orbit of a president who entered the White House with no military or foreign policy experience and who has in some cases favored loyalists over seasoned officials for top posts.
But that notion has annoyed the president, helping to fray their personal relationship, and a breach has developed between the men over some of the most high-profile items on Trump’s military agenda.
Never a direct critic in public, Mattis has privately disagreed with the president on issues like NATO policy, Trump’s decision to cancel large-scale joint exercises with South Korea, and the long-term effectiveness of the president’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump’s jab at Mattis threatens to put his defense secretary in a precarious position akin to that of other Cabinet officials like Attorney General Jeff Sessions who have remained in office even as they have come under fire from the president.
Though the president called Mattis a Democrat, the Pentagon chief has worked hard to keep the Defense Department out of politics, often portraying the military as remaining untouched by the bitter partisan bickering in the capital.
Asked about Trump’s comments on “60 Minutes,” Colonel Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, offered a terse statement Sunday: “Secretary Mattis is laser-focused on doing his job — ensuring the US military remains the most lethal force on the planet.”
But the president’s remarks underscored the policy disagreements between Mattis and the president’s national security team, led by John Bolton, the national security adviser, as well as differences with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Bolton, an ideological conservative whose views on foreign policy are more hawkish than those of Mattis, appears to have deepened the president’s suspicions that his defense secretary’s view of the world is more like that of Democrats than his own.
Bolton’s decision in April to appoint Mira Ricardel as his deputy was viewed by many in the Pentagon as a direct affront to Mattis, who clashed with Ricardel when she served as a Pentagon transition official for the new administration.
In a statement Sunday, Ricardel said the National Security Counsel “is coordinating across government agencies to implement the president’s agenda, including with the Defense Department under the leadership of General Mattis, for whom I have great respect.”
But in her transition role, Ricardel moved to block Mattis from selecting Anne Patterson, a career diplomat who had worked for Democratic and Republican presidents, to serve as undersecretary of defense for policy, an influential post at the Pentagon. Administration officials have said the disagreements between Mattis and Ricardel held up senior appointments at the Defense Department for months.
After serving on the transition team, Ricardel moved to the Commerce Department. Now that she is at the White House, the friction between the Pentagon and the president’s national security advisers appears to have intensified.
The new dynamic between the president and his defense secretary is a dramatic turn from what was by all accounts a strong relationship between the men when Trump entered the White House. At the time, Trump spoke of Mattis in reverential and almost awe-struck terms, gleefully referred to him as “Mad Dog,” a nickname Mattis detests.
At a North Carolina rally where he announced Mattis as his pick for defense secretary, the president described the general as the living embodiment of the Marine Corps motto, “semper fidelis,” or “always faithful.”
“Mad Dog plays no games, right?” Trump bellowed, prompting cheers from the raucous crowd.
But as the months passed, Mattis found himself frequently treading a fine line on carrying out some of Trump’s orders, including moving slowly when the president tweeted an order to bar transgender troops from joining the military. The tweet, which came while Mattis was on vacation, caught the Pentagon brass off guard.
Now well into his second year as president, with Trump confident in his job as commander in chief and taking a more leading role on national security decisions, cracks in his relationship with Mattis are readily apparent. That includes sidelining Mattis over policy decisions and ignoring national security aides.
The recent publication of a book by Bob Woodward may have widened those cracks. In the book, Woodward writes that after a briefing on North Korea, Mattis told colleagues that Trump had the understanding of “fifth- or sixth-grader.” Mattis denied saying that.
Last month, Mattis told Pentagon reporters that they should not pay much attention to reports that he might be leaving his post.
“How many times have we been through this now, just since I’ve been here? It will die down soon, and the people who started the rumor will be allowed to write the next rumor, too,” Mattis said. “Just the way the town is,” he added. “Keep a sense of humor about it.”
As reports continued to swirl, the defense secretary joked about his potential departure.
“Of course, I don’t think about leaving,” he told reporters last month. “I love it here.”