He’s the last man standing among the band of retired military officers President Trump once called “my generals,” but Defense Secretary James N. Mattis just scored arguably the biggest win of his tenure, staving off a steep budget cut and highlighting the political muscle he still wields inside the administration.
Insiders say Mr. Mattis was the critical voice in convincing the White House to reverse course on a planned decrease in Defense Department spending in the coming years.
The former Marine general was able to win the high-stakes battle in recent days because he — unlike outgoing Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other decorated generals who fell out of favor with the president — retains sway and goodwill with Mr. Trump and other officials inside the West Wing.
The blunt-talking Mr. Mattis, analysts argue, has for two years successfully walked a tightrope that’s proven difficult for others to navigate. He has served as the administration’s attack dog when necessary — blasting Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “slow learner” earlier this month, for example — but has mostly steered clear of volatile political fights over Mr. Trump’s most heated policy moves, such as the decision to dispatch U.S. troops to the Mexican border before the midterm elections.
He backed Mr. Trump on the need to maintain ties with Saudi Arabia in the face of mounting congressional anger over Riyadh’s suspected role in the killing of dissident U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October.
He’s toed a delicate line on North Korea, often talking tough to Pyongyang while going out of his way to praise Mr. Trump’s controversial diplomatic outreach to that country’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong Un. Mr. Mattis also championed the president’s call for a “Space Force” as the sixth branch of the military, even though he was already on the record as deeply skeptical of the idea.
All that has not quieted speculation that Mr. Mattis’ days at the Pentagon may still be numbered, particularly as his allies in the White House and other departments leave and National Security Adviser John Bolton amasses more control over foreign and security policy.
But the recent budget battle, in particular, specialists contend, illustrates the Pentagon chief’s strategic skill. Publicly, Mr. Mattis and other Defense Department officials raised concerns but ultimately said they’d work with whatever spending figure they were given.
Behind the scenes, however, Mr. Mattis stressed that the cut would hurt military readiness and compromise the administration’s broad national security strategy, thereby violating Mr. Trump’s campaign vow to rebuild a military he believes lost its edge under President Obama.
“I think the only conclusion you can draw is that it shows Mattis is in a strong position with the president, at least on policy,” said Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mr. Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel, formerly worked on defense spending strategy at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
“Mattis has a superb military record, but so does Kelly and so does McMaster. At some point, it’s just personality,” Mr. Cancian continued. “Mattis doesn’t deal with the president very often. McMaster and Kelly dealt with him every day. And I think that distance has helped Mattis. … He’s very good at avoiding angering Trump by disagreeing in public but also staying true to his convictions.”
Speculation about Mr. Mattis’ departure from the Pentagon remains rampant across Washington and in military circles. Mr. Bolton’s appointment earlier this year fueled rumors that a split was near, with the two men at odds on key policies.
Mr. Mattis, for example, has stressed that the only U.S. military mission in Syria is to defeat the Islamic State. Mr. Bolton said in September the U.S. will remain in Syria as long as Iranian-backed proxy groups are active in Syria’s civil war there.
That public policy disagreement didn’t seem to faze Mr. Mattis. But in October, Mr. Trump even took a veiled shot at his Defense chief in what many observers believed was a precursor to his exit as soon as the November midterm elections ended.
“I think he’s sort of a Democrat if you want to know the truth,” the president told “60 Minutes” in an interview in October. “But Gen. Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well.”
Asked if Mr. Mattis might be the next Cabinet secretary to step down, Mr. Trump offered a less-than-categorical denial: “At some point, everybody leaves.”
Mr. Mattis addressed the comment by saying he’s never joined any political party but did not fire back at the president directly. Instead, he pivoted to what analysts say is his strength: Finding a political consensus around the military, even in a highly divided Washington.
“Where am I today? I’m a member of the president’s administration,” he said at the time. “And you have seen that President Trump’s military policies, security policies, reaping significant bipartisan support.”
Keeping it civil
While the Pentagon chief had a candid conversation with White House officials over the budget, there’s been little hint of private arguments or shouting matches with the president — the type of clashes that Mr. Kelly reportedly has had with Mr. Trump.
When private criticisms do go public — author Bob Woodward’s Trump tell-all book alleged this fall that Mr. Mattis had compared the president to a “fifth or sixth grader” after one policy debate — Mr. Mattis has quickly and forcefully denied them.
The president over the weekend said Mr. Kelly would leave his post as chief of staff at the end of the month. He’s been on the job since July 2017, taking over after a short stint as homeland security secretary.
Mr. Kelly’s exit comes after Mr. McMaster left the administration last April. Gen. Michael Flynn also served briefly as the White House national security adviser before leaving in February 2017 after revelations he’d misled the administration about his contacts with Russian officials during the presidential transition.
Over the weekend, the president also announced that he had tapped Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to serve as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That announcement came even though the current chairman, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, has nearly 10 months left in his term.
Throughout the near-constant shakeups involving generals inside the administration, Mr. Mattis has remained publicly loyal to the president while pushing ahead with a comprehensive defense strategy.
Specialists say his approach — which some have dubbed the “Mattis revolution,” focusing on countering rising powers such as China — has been correct, and that his budget battle with the president boiled down to ensuring he had the money to make his strategy a reality.
“Almost two years into the Trump administration, there’s a lot to like about the overall direction that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has taken at the Pentagon,” James N. Miller, former undersecretary of defense for policy under Mr. Obama, and senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution Michael O’Hanlon wrote Monday.
“Most impressive is the National Defense Strategy of early 2018 that prioritizes great-power competition and deterrence over the forever wars of the Middle East and South Asia,” they wrote in a piece for The National Interest.
Mr. Miller and Mr. O’Hanlon argued that the Mattis strategy was “imperiled” by the looming budget cuts. By convincing the president to change his mind, analysts say Mr. Mattis is now in a position of power and will be equipped with the funding he needs to shepherd his military vision into reality — if he chooses to stay.
“He was able to turn around a presidential decision, and that counts for something,” Mr. Cancian said. “How that relates to whether he stays or goes, certainly it would strengthen the notion that he would stay. But it’s not absolute.”