Former defense secretary James Mattis, out promoting his book, has deflected question after question about whether he considers President Trump crazy (or, in the parlance of cable TV, “unfit”). He will not say it flat out, but he seems to be following the inverse of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous admonition during her confirmation: “No hints, no forecasts, no previews.”
In the hints department, Mattis has taken to referencing his pointed resignation letter and saying things such as: “I don’t know how I could have spoken more loudly to where I stand than what I put in my letter of resignation and quitting a job when I had not completed it two years in.” Asked about Trump’s infamous tweet taking Kim Jong Un’s side in criticizing former vice president Joe Biden, he responded to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg:
“Mattis looked at his hands. Finally he said, ‘Any Marine general or any other senior servant of the people of the United States would find that, to use a mild euphemism, counterproductive and beneath the dignity of the presidency.’
“He went on, ‘Let me put it this way. I’ve written an entire book built on the principles of respecting your troops, respecting each other, respecting your allies. Isn’t it pretty obvious how I would feel about something like that?’ ”
As for forecasts, he’ll offer that he does not foresee a problem with Trump’s stewardship of the nuclear codes.
And his preview consists of a future revelation, someday. “There will come a time when I speak out on strategic issues, policy issues — that I do not have a question about,” he said in an interview at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But I need to give some period of time to those who have to carry out the responsibility to protect this county in a very, very difficult age.” He mysteriously suggests that as to timing, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
Mattis has his own code of honor, so no amount of badgering him is likely to pay off. The danger, however, is that he unintentionally normalizes Trump by engaging in false equivalences. “He’s an unusual president, our president is,” he told CBS. “And I think that especially with the, just the rabid nature of politics today, we’ve gotta be careful. We could tear this country apart.” Really, or is Trump tearing the country apart and behaving in ways that passed “unusual” years ago?
Mattis’ hints can be seen as either a violation of his own rule of forbearance or an attempt to inch up to the line without going over it. Given that he is a general trained to be apolitical, Mattis’s attempt at evenhandedness is understandable, but inappropriate in these times.
The problem is not that both Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are too partisan or that Democrats and Republicans have jointly attacked democratic institutions, undermined the separation of powers, demonized the media and destroyed the very notion of objective truth. At present, only one party, led by a president who has no understanding of concepts such as the rule of law, is the rabid, destructive force in American politics. If Mattis is going to weigh in (however tepidly) on politics, he should not obscure that reality.
The former defense secretary is right in one regard: Excessive polarization and partisan tribalism made governing difficult, if not impossible, before Trump came on the scene. Only the exaggerated, hyper-partisan perception of Hillary Clinton as a threat to civilization allowed so many Republicans to justify their vote for Trump. Mattis and other former officials and military men have a role to play in promoting civics education, backing organizations that (like the military) take people of disparate backgrounds and direct them toward a common purpose, and championing voting reform (including ranked-choice voting). All would serve to restore the notion of the common good and respect for our constitutional system.
Mattis should leave the political analysis to others and use his immense talents to help repair a country whose democracy is threadbare and whose people have burrowed into competing camps.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post. Follow her @JRubinBlogger.