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Was James Mattis the Last Check on Trump?

Military sources say the recent strikes against Iran wouldn't have happened under the former secretary's watch.

President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Defense Secretary Mattis. (DoD)

In January of 2017, while awaiting Senate confirmation as Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, retired Marine General James Mattis was warned about the new president in a telephone call from Democratic Congressman Adam Smith. “I called him and said, ‘Trump has no idea what he’s doing, but isn’t afraid to do it,” Smith recounted, then explained that he warned Mattis that Trump’s closest advisers were likely to feed the new president’s worst instincts. “You’re across the river, and they’re across the hall,” Smith explained to Mattis. “Your job is to make sure these morons don’t get up in the morning and advance some lamebrained idea.”

Over the next months, Mattis had ample opportunity to heed Smith’s warning. In April of 2017, the newly minted defense secretary received a call from Trump, who was enraged by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s chemical attack in Idlib. Trump had seen pictures gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies of the attack’s civilian victims, and he was outraged. He wanted Assad dead: “Let’s f-cking kill him,” Trump shouted in his telephone exchange with Mattis. “Let’s go in. Let’s kill the f-cking lot of them.” Mattis reassured Trump that he would come up with military response options, then ended the call. He turned to an aide: “We’re not going to do any of that,” he announced. “We’re going to be much more measured.” 

It wouldn’t be the first time that Mattis ignored the president. Just weeks after the Syria incident, Mattis had a telephone conversation with then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who pressed the Pentagon chief to provide military plans for countering Iranian threats to international shipping in the Persian Gulf—including strikes on Iranian missile emplacements and the sinking of Iranian speedboats. Mattis refused. McMaster, according to a Pentagon official privy to the incident, could hardly believe what he was hearing, cleared his office of NSC aides, and went head-to-head with Mattis. The request for military plans against Iran, McMaster told Mattis, had come directly from the president. Saying “no” wasn’t an option. Mattis dug in his heels—and the plans the president had requested never arrived.  

Mattis’s handling of Trump has become a touchstone for senior Pentagon officials who fear that the president’s instincts are now leading the U.S. into an unnecessary and preventable war—and one that Mattis was intent to prevent. “Taking out Soleimani would not have happened under Mattis,” a senior administration official told The Washington Post. “Mattis was opposed to all of this.” A senior Pentagon official who spoke to TAC within hours of the Soleimani killing was as outspoken—and worried that a Mattis-like voice of caution was absent in any of the administration’s deliberations. “This is dangerous and reckless,” he said. “But this is what happens when there aren’t any adults left in the room.” 

In fact, there are plenty of adults left in the room, they’re just not the kind of adults that either Adam Smith or James Mattis might have preferred. Two of the most important, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham and former Army vice chief of staff Jack Keane, don’t serve in the administration—but have an outsized influence on Trump’s foreign policy decisions. Both weighed in on the Soleimani operation. 

“The Soleimani killing has Graham and Keane’s fingerprints all over it,” a senior Pentagon official told TAC. “Graham is the Trump whisperer, and Jack Keane is buddy-buds with Mike Pompeo. I won’t say that killing Soleimani was their idea, because the idea has been out there for a long time, but there’s no question their input was important, maybe even really important. They don’t have a veto, but Pompeo and Trump listen to them.” 

In fact, as Graham has claimed, he was briefed on “the potential operation” while visiting with Trump in Florida in the days prior to the killing (and endorsed it), while Keane’s views were solicited by Pompeo during conversations that were described (by the Pentagon official with whom I spoke) as “pretty regular.” 

Surprisingly, while Graham’s influence on Trump is widely known, Keane has been traditionally viewed as a Mattis-like check on Trump’s off-the-cuff decisions as well as his “let’s kill the f – cking lot of them” eruptions. For instance, Keane single-handedly persuaded Trump to leave U.S. troops in Syria when the president wanted to withdraw them back in October and, the previous June, dissuaded Trump from responding to the downing of a U.S. drone by hitting major Iranian military installations—communicating his opposition during an appearance on Fox News. But Keane did not say ‘no’ this time and endorsed the Soleimani operation, primarily because he believes the Iranians crossed a red line when rockets launched by a militia under their control killed an American contractor at a U.S. base on December 27. Keane has since supported Trump’s actions in public, which has solidified his standing as perhaps the single most important military voice in the administration—and perhaps the most influential out-of-uniform military officer since Maxwell Taylor advised John Kennedy more than half-a-century ago. 

But while Graham and Keane’s views were important, the most crucial voice arguing that killing Soleimani be included in the Pentagon’s list of Iran response options belonged to Mike Pompeo. The increasingly high profile Pompeo is not only “the administration’s most veteran anti-Iran crusader,” but also the “single most important foreign policy voice in the administration”—as the senior Pentagon official with whom TAC spoke describes him.

“With Tillerson and Mattis and [national security adviser John] Bolton gone, this guy doesn’t have any competitors,” this official added. Pompeo’s emergence as a kind of “deputy president” (as this same official describes him) has chilled the views of those who had hoped that Mark Esper, Pompeo’s Pentagon counterpart and his West Point classmate (Class of ’86), would emerge as someone who would make sure the “morons don’t get up in the morning and advance some lamebrained idea.” For these Pentagon officials, the Soleimani decision shows that that has not turned out to be true. “Pompeo drove this decision,” a retired senior military officer notes, “and you can be sure that if either Esper or [J.C.S. Chairman Mark] Milley had objected, they would have been overruled.”

Which is not to say that senior military officers disagree with Trump’s decision to kill Qassem Soleimani.  

By all account, the vast proportion and most influential among them don’t. “This man was breathing air a good man could have been breathing and I shed no tears over his death,” retired Colonel and West Point graduate Kevin Benson says. “But this was a big step. I trust that folks on the Joint Staff and at Centcom really have an honest-to-God well-thought-out strategy in place to follow up on this tactical action. This is an opportunity for those folks from the West Point Class of ’86 to step up.” 

But while the vast portion of the military support the Soleimani decision, a number of them offer a cautionary note. They question whether the Trump administration’s decision making process is, in fact, an actual process—or whether the voices from across the hall—or from Foggy Bottom—are silencing the voices from across the river.

“Everyone always talks about how an administration needs to speak with one voice, and that’s true when a decision is announced,” the Pentagon official with whom TAC spoke notes. “But before that happens there has to be someone in the room who says ‘hey, wait a second.’ And right now, that voice isn’t there.” 

Mark Perry is a journalist, author, and contributing editor at The American Conservative. His latest book is The Pentagon’s Wars. He tweets @markperrydc.

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