clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrives for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing concerning the authorizations for use of military force in Washington, DC, on October 30, 2017.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Filed under:

Why James Mattis couldn’t contain Trump

A former top Mattis aide explains the chaos inside Trump’s Pentagon.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis remains one of the most complicated figures from President Donald Trump’s administration.

The hard-nosed champion of traditional American foreign policy agreed to join Trump’s Cabinet, hitching his wagon to a man whose worldview he readily admits is profoundly at odds with his. But the retired Marine general worked tirelessly behind the scenes to rein in the president’s worst impulses and steer the nation in the right direction.

The problem, though, is that he failed. Trump became more confident in himself after his first year in office and began relying on — or even listening to — his national security team less and less. Mattis eventually resigned in December 2018 nominally over the president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria (an order that was walked back over time).

Retired Navy Commander Guy Snodgrass, who served as Mattis’s chief speechwriter and communications director, saw the decline happen in real time. Mattis “would never admit how he truly felt about it,” he told me in an interview, “but it created stress for him.”

Snodgrass’s new book, Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, has created quite a stir. It’s an intimate, unflinching look at what was going on inside the Pentagon as Mattis and his colleagues tried to manage the foreign policy whims of a mercurial and often uninformed president — which is exactly why Mattis and the Pentagon tried to slow-walk its publication.

I called up Snodgrass to discuss his book and his time in the Pentagon. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity below, puts into sharp focus just how chaotic America’s national security policy is with Trump at the helm — and how even someone as experienced as Mattis (who declined to comment on this interview) couldn’t make things right.

Alex Ward

I’m sure you’ve seen Mattis’s comments on your book, basically saying you lack honor for writing about your time working for him. What’s your response?

Guy Snodgrass

I was disappointed in the release that Secretary Mattis put out — through his secretary, no less. What I would say is that Secretary Mattis knows better. We’ve both worn the uniform of our country, and we’re trained from day one that no other person — including James Mattis — can define my honor or characterize my service.

Alex Ward

You knew you were going to get heat for writing this book, though, and obviously the Pentagon’s actions ahead of its release spoke volumes.

Guy Snodgrass

This is absolutely a book that Secretary Mattis sought to block. This is a book that the Pentagon, as the legal filing demonstrates, sought to block. They delayed the publication for months. They tried to pull three chapters out of it wholesale, even though the only bar you have to pass as a retired military official, or as a former Pentagon employee, is whether or not it is classified. Period. That certainly was not the case with my book.

They sought to block it because there’s material in here that they found to be too inside baseball. I’m bringing readers into the Pentagon, into meetings with Mattis and Trump, and I’m sharing with them my firsthand experience. I know that’s alarming to many in the Pentagon.

But Mattis did something very similar in his book: he talked about private, behind-the-scenes conversations with President Bush and with President Obama. Then he was fine bringing readers into the room and the conversations he had with presidential candidate Joe Biden. So there’s not much distinction or difference between what he’s done and what I’m doing, other than that mine is certainly more recent, relevant, and very topical.

President Trump speaks beside then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis during a meeting with members of his Cabinet at the White House on March 8, 2018.
Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Alex Ward

The way Mattis portrays himself in his book, and the way he portrays himself in public, is as an old-school leader who can influence others. But I got the sense during his time in the Pentagon and reading your book that when “Plan A” — getting Trump to see the world through his eyes — didn’t work, he just kind of went, “Well, damn” and sort of gave up.

Guy Snodgrass

No, I wouldn’t say that’s true at all. Everything we did, especially in the first year of the administration, was all part of a strategy and semblance of a plan we were executing. So to your point, when you look throughout a larger swath of the administration and the White House itself, I don’t think it’s going to shock your readers that they’re just responding to the news of the day.

In that kind of environment, the Pentagon was able to fall back to plans B, C, D, E, F as needed. But you always are following and executing the strategy. That was a competitive advantage for us in the Department of Defense that I felt a lot of others didn’t have.

Alex Ward

But your book is pretty clear that Mattis struggled to convince the president to see the world the way the government traditionally has and that he failed to really connect with Trump.

Guy Snodgrass

Again, I wouldn’t agree with that at all. When you’re an outside viewer and you’re not seeing what’s happening behind the scenes, it may look that way. Mattis says something, the president does something else, and therefore the narrative is that Mattis lost.

But at the end of the day, President Trump was elected into office and the administration works for him. You can be the most gifted and skilled politician behind closed doors, but if the president says we’re going to do something different, well, guess what? That’s what you’re going to do.

What you see in the book, though, is just time after time after time where people’s best-laid plans fell by the wayside as they carried out the president’s policy desires. An ill-advised tweet would just blow so many plans up.

My advice to Trump: When you’re the head of the United States government, which has millions and millions of people working on your behalf, it becomes very difficult to govern effectively when you constantly chop their legs out from underneath them.

Alex Ward

Let’s move from Mattis’s tense relationship with Trump to his tense relationship with the press. Full disclosure: I’ve been very critical of Mattis for shutting out the press while he was secretary of defense, as I know a lot of my colleagues have been.

As you note in the book, Mattis likes to stay out of the limelight, partly because that’s who he is and partly to avoid Trump’s ire. But he also views much of the world through the lens of history, and I wonder why he didn’t consider the long-term effects of his stiff-arming of the press?

Then-Defense Secretary James Mattis talks with journalists before welcoming German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on June 20, 2018.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Guy Snodgrass

It’s always easier to judge others than it is to follow your own advice, right? You can read history and with the hindsight of 20/20; you can look at those historical figures and say, “Why didn’t you do those things?”

But when you’re in that situation, you’re just trying to respond to daily issues. While you’re in the midst of putting out one fire, another one pops up. That’s a very difficult position to be in for any leader who’s been appointed to the president’s Cabinet. It’s actually a testament to Mattis’s dedication and selfless service that he stayed in that fight.

We’ll learn more in the coming years from Mattis, but I believe, having worked alongside him for a year and a half, that he stayed in the thick of it out of a sense of duty and obligation to the nation. He also understood that this was an opportunity to really make a positive impact on restoring the military and make sure the US was positioned for the increased competition against rising global nations.

Alex Ward

I can respect that. But Mattis did take the top civilian defense job while American troops were in harm’s way. I get that he didn’t want to be on camera so he could keep doing his job, but didn’t he have a responsibility to the American people to inform them as to what their military was doing?

Guy Snodgrass

I’ve had an ongoing relationship with members of the press for the last few years, especially in my role serving alongside Mattis as his communications director. Since that time, especially as I was working on this book project and sharing the experience publicly, I’ve heard a lot more feedback. And I think history will judge James Mattis poorly for that omission.

He was obviously faced with a tough choice, but guess what? Sometimes in government, you lose sight of the fact that you work on behalf of the American public. We exist as a public service to serve them. There was an opportunity lost to consistently, almost like once a week, take to the podium and say, “I’m on the record, bring your best and I will be as open and honest as I can be.”

Mattis understandably fell back on what he knew, which was being a four-star general and cautious about whatever he said publicly. So he just chose the path of minimizing contact with media and preserving his role as long as he could.

Alex Ward

Your book, to me, read like a tragedy, in that a highly regarded public servant and warfighter saw his shine diminish just a little more each day. It’s not that he slid into irrelevance, but rather that he just began to fade away. What moment crystallized that for you?

Guy Snodgrass

Definitely in the March and April 2018 timeframe. I remember sitting at my desk and watching the major news networks. I’ll never forget the moment when all of a sudden it pops up that [national security adviser H.R.] McMaster was leaving, just days after [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson was on his way out. I remember thinking, “Wow, man!” It was one of those moments of clarity I didn’t expect to have, but you just knew; boom, that’s it.

Mattis had Tillerson to run interference. Tillerson would throw himself in front of the speeding Trump train. He would do it in alignment with Mattis’s position, but Mattis wouldn’t do it publicly. Tillerson did. Tillerson would take that shot and then take the next shot. He was just a very vocal part of the administration, a very visible part of the administration.

The same goes for McMaster. For all the disagreements that McMaster had with Tillerson and Mattis, he was still a very valuable team player within the White House. When he and Tillerson left, you knew the only one left to speak truth to power was Mattis. Mattis didn’t want to be in a position where he had to do that publicly, but he found himself increasingly at odds with the president.

Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence attend a joint news conference with President Trump and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö at the White House on August 28, 2017.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Alex Ward

So as Trump gained more confidence in himself as commander in chief, Mattis’s ability to influence waned?

Guy Snodgrass

Definitely. You saw Trump over the course of the first year become more confident in his abilities. It’s dangerous when you’re confident, but you don’t have the requisite competence to go with it. Trump really needed to rely on the experts he brought in with deep knowledge in national security or governance and at least accept their advice on a lot of issues.

Alex Ward

I know it’s hard to psychoanalyze someone, but you were his speechwriter. How did Mattis handle seeing his star fade out?

Guy Snodgrass

It’s not unreasonable to ask me to psychoanalyze Mattis. When you think about my job as communications director and chief speechwriter, I had a lot of close, continuing contact with him. My only job for a year and a half was to study him, to read everything he’d written previously, to watch his interviews, to just watch him. In doing so, I became what a friend of mine called “the voice of Chaos” [a reference to Mattis’s call sign in the Marine Corps, “Chaos”].

He would never admit how he truly felt about it. But it created stress for him, and that generated more stress for the staff. That first year, the Pentagon was widely seen as driving a lot of national security policy. Over time, as the president became more comfortable in his role, you found the Defense Department was more and more marginalized.

Here’s just one example: [Now-former national security adviser] John Bolton’s deputy was Mira Ricardel, who had a very, very contentious relationship with both Mattis and his chief of staff Kevin Sweeney. That meant a lot of the information that used to come to us dried up [after Bolton became national security adviser]. We were, in some respects, flying blind around the April 2018 timeframe.

Alex Ward

I take it Mattis didn’t like that.

Guy Snodgrass

It increased the stress for everybody on the team. And as you mentioned, it was a little bit like a tragedy because Mattis’s stock had a clear crescendo and then the subsequent decline. And as things became more stressful and contentious on the staff, the relationship between the staff members also became more challenging, as my own experience made clear.

Alex Ward

One of the clearest moments of the Pentagon being out of the loop on what the White House was doing was when the president tweeted his ban of transgender troops. Trump surprised Mattis and the whole Pentagon with that announcement, and it was a deeply important, emotional announcement for so many.

Guy Snodgrass

There’s no doubt that there was just chaos throughout the administration with how decision-making was formulated. Look, there was no notice ahead of the Space Force creation announcement, even though I had queried the White House that day asking, “Hey, will there be a statement on that? We’re not really tracking.” Then the White House tells me that only some unrelated space directive will be announced, to which I responded, “Great.”

And then literally as we watch it live, President Trump points at General Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and says, “General, we’re creating a Space Force. You got me? Let’s go.” And 15 minutes later the phone rings and you look at the caller ID. It’s John Kelly, the chief of staff at the White House calling to say, “Surprise. He just directed the creation of the Space Force.”

Here’s your Department of Defense. Easily your largest department within the administration, responsible for an over $700 billion annual budget, kept in the dark about this large announcement. That was repeated time and time again.

Alex Ward

As it was with the trans military ban.

Guy Snodgrass

Right, it’s like the defining characteristic of the administration and why it was so difficult to actually enact many of the policy decisions the president wanted to see put in place. He wasn’t setting up his team up for success.

Mattis knew without a shadow of a doubt, as many others did, that the transgender ban decision would be highly contested. It was of significant political interest, and it would be contested in the courts. We wanted to make sure that it was arrived at legally, ethically, and underpinned by a lot of facts.

We communicated that to the White House, and the president approved our deliberate approach. We were two or three months into that process, and we were sure we had the top cover. And then as soon as Mattis went to Washington state to spend some time with his mother, bam! Here comes the tweet, and it’s out of nowhere, saying, in effect, “In consultation with generals, transgender individuals are hereby banned from military service.”

We had no heads-up. Our chief of staff had no heads-up. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs had no heads-up.

Alex Ward

What did you do about it?

Guy Snodgrass

We were scrambling to figure out what it all meant and what we had to do about it. Mattis was able to intercede and work with the president and then-chief of staff Kelly to get to a better resolution. But those tweets imperiled the president’s own decision because he could’ve had a legally defensible, well-thought position, yet he undercut it with those three tweets.

On July 26, 2017, after a series of tweets by President Trump, which proposed to ban transgender people from military service, thousands of New Yorkers took the streets of in opposition.
Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Alex Ward

Did Mattis ever convey that the president was imperiling national security, or at least his own policy preferences, with the way he went about things?

Guy Snodgrass

Mattis was — and is — an incredibly stoic individual. In that way, he certainly lives up to his well-manicured public persona. He just doesn’t have a contentious meeting at the White House. He doesn’t see a tweet and then fly into a tizzy. He takes things as they come, like you would hope a long-time military commander would do.

But I do in the book recount a discussion that Mattis had with the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, the Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg, and CBS’s John Dickerson. One question raised to Mattis was, “Do you think Trump’s policies will make America stronger?” to which Mattis responded, effectively, “I fear that why we’ll appear stronger in the short term, no, they will not make America stronger in the long run.”

He’s normally so stoic, so guarded and measured with his words. I thought it was a very telling statement that even off the record he was willing to say that.

Alex Ward

That gets into something else, which is that Mattis seems to curate his public persona. In many ways, he’s the tough-talking, straight-shooting Marine many believe he is. But how did he go about promoting that image of himself?

Guy Snodgrass

We were always thinking about the second- and third-order effects. For example, if Mattis received a letter from a high-schooler in Missouri saying, “Mr. Mattis, I think you’re doing a great job. Thank you for your service.” Most people would say, “Oh, that’s really nice,” and then they just throw it in the circular file [i.e., the trash]. But we would flag it because Mattis would want to sign it because you knew that letter would make its way back to the constituents and they’d say, “Wow, what a great guy.”

So Mattis, of all the bosses I’ve ever had, and anybody I’ve ever worked alongside, was very self-disciplined. He was consistent. He was at his desk, by 5:50 to 6:00 am every single morning. He works tirelessly. When he went home, he worked tirelessly there as well.

It was all just laser-focused on the country first, secondarily the administration, and I think, thirdly, doing all the nice things many wouldn’t do because they were so busy. He would follow through because of his discipline, and doing those nice things gave him political capital that led to, in this case, a well-deserved public persona.

Alex Ward

Last question: Mattis has refused to directly criticize the president or his actions since Mattis left his post. Should he be talking more openly about Trump?

Guy Snodgrass

That decision lies with Mattis. I believe that’s one of the beautiful things about America — that he can make his own decision about that. Millions of people will judge him whether he did or did not speak out. But if he has elected to take this vow of silence about the president, then certainly I hope that he sticks with it throughout the entirety of President Trump’s time in office.

We’ve seen cracks in the veneer, though, like at the Al Smith dinner where Mattis surprisingly made jokes at the president’s expense. If you say you’re going to stand on principle and not say anything, though, then I believe you should honor that.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis speaks during a press briefing at the Pentagon August 28, 2018.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images
2024 GOP primary

3 winners and 1 loser from the fourth Republican presidential debate

World Politics

The “apocalyptic” humanitarian situation in Gaza, captured by one quote

Future Perfect

Qubit by qubit, the quantum computers of tomorrow are coming into being

View all stories in Politics