Secretary of Defense James Mattis is one of the most respected former generals of his generation. He’s also widely viewed as the most serious and capable member of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. So why isn’t he publicly speaking for the administration more often?
Mattis has yet to conduct a press conference of his own in the Pentagon. He’s only appeared on one Sunday news show. He has yet to sit down for a profile of him. When he fields questions from the media en route to some location — which he does fairly often — he usually only answers a few before going off mic.
For a nation at war in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it would seem only natural for the nation’s top defense official to regularly make the case for what the US is trying to accomplish and how those fights are going. But that's not the path Mattis has chosen.
“Jim himself is what I would call a military mensch,” Doug Wilson, a former Pentagon senior spokesperson in the Obama administration, said in an interview. “He’s the antithesis of a showboat.”
The problem is that leaves the public in the dark as to what the nation’s top defense official thinks about US security. Without a trusted leader like Mattis explaining what the DOD is doing — and what it plans to do — it leaves space for the president to send mixed messages about US operations around the world. That only makes it harder for the public and US allies to trust the work of the Pentagon.
“He’s not somebody who likes to be public on a lot of things”
During a meeting with reporters on June 20, Pentagon spokesperson Capt. Jeff Davis fielded a question about why Mattis had yet to make a public statement about the seven US Navy sailors who had died in a ship crash off the coast of Japan four days earlier.
“The secretary is somebody who expresses his communications to others — whether it’s diplomatically or to troops — he does it privately,” Davis responded. “He’s not somebody who likes to be public on a lot of things.”
That, in a nutshell, is how Mattis operates — and there’s a fair case to be made for his choice. He is, after all, overseeing three wars. President Trump authorized the military to take complete control over its own matters, requiring more of Mattis’s time and attention. He even gave Mattis permission to unilaterally set the troop levels in Afghanistan, likely to be increased later this year. Under former President Barack Obama, troop increases like that were debated and dictated by the White House itself.
With so much on his plate, it would be reasonable for Mattis to conclude that it’s better he spend more of his time working on those issues than preparing for a Sunday show appearance or press conference.
But a solo Sunday show hit is not the kind of media engagement Mattis wants. He wants to appear with others to send a signal that America’s military work requires the help of others in the US government and the country’s allies, according to Dana White, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson.
“Communicating is also about the optics. It’s about what do you want the American people to understand,” she said in an interview. “His approach to the media is purposeful and deliberate.”
And that tracks with his military career. He’s never really been a political general. Some, like retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, were famous for using the media to not only explain their military responsibilities to the public, but also to build their own celebrity. For example, Petraeus made himself very available for a book written by one of his former aides about their time together in Iraq. Petraeus even wrote the foreword.
Mattis was never like that, and those who work for him know it. "He sees no value in having his name in the paper," an unnamed defense official told the Washington Examiner. "He's been known to say, 'I'm the kinda guy who likes to climb the Matterhorn at night.'" That said, he doesn’t mind once in a while dropping in for surprise appearances with the Pentagon press corps in their bullpen.
But he’s in a political job now. That comes with a whole new set of responsibilities — among them speaking to the press in an open, public setting by himself. The risks of his silence are now greater than when he was in uniform.
“He does not want to become Gulliver in a press Lilliput”
When Mattis conducts a press conference, he usually has someone by his side. Whether it’s a senior US military official or a visiting foreign defense minister, Mattis likes to give that person much of the spotlight.
The only times he digs deep into his substantive thoughts on his own are when he gives speeches. That’s because during his planned, prewritten speeches he’s almost always cleaning up the president’s messes. At NATO, Mattis said the US supported the alliance (by that point, Trump had yet to commit to Article 5, the provision that says an attack on one is an attack on all). In Singapore, Mattis reaffirmed America’s commitment to Asian allies — something Trump had not done during the presidential campaign.
That may explain part of the reason Mattis doesn’t speak alone at press conferences — he worries the president may openly contradict him. Secretary of State Tillerson knows well the high probability of that happening. Just one hour after he tried to put an end to the diplomatic crisis surrounding Qatar, Trump essentially endorsed the Saudi Arabian-led diplomatic war on the country by blaming Qatar for its support of terrorism.
Then again, Mattis is not a fan of answering questions when he doesn’t feel he has to. During media availabilities, he normally takes just a handful of questions and prefers to speak to reporters in an off-the-record setting. He has yet to sit down for a profile of him. “He’s not a fan of profiles,” Davis noted in an interview.
Mattis also avoids one-on-one sit-downs during the Sunday news shows. He’s only been on one: CBS’s Face the Nation. Incidentally, it was there that Mattis had perhaps his most famous exchange with the media during his time in office:
JOHN DICKERSON: What keeps you awake at night?
MATTIS: Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.
In effect, Mattis doesn’t like getting bogged down in the world of media relations. On his most recent trip to Europe, no television journalists were invited to join, noted CNN’s Barbara Starr, a top member of the Pentagon press corps. But Mattis shrinking from the media limelight is by design, Wilson told me.
“He does not want to become Gulliver in a press Lilliput.”
Don’t expect Mattis to change
Reporters always want access to those in power. Mattis is unlikely to oblige.
The approach has allowed him to stay out of the political fray that Trump seems to create on a daily basis. Most prominently, Mattis didn’t defend the travel ban when it was announced at the Pentagon on January 27. In fact, he lobbied hard to get Iraq moved off the banned list because of America’s current military operations there.
He’s also been unwilling to play Trump’s own political games. During the first Cabinet meeting, most of the president’s aides paid homage to the commander in chief. Mattis famously didn’t. Instead, he said it was his honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense.
There are no indications that Mattis shares Trump’s open disdain for the press. In fact, he has explicitly said he has no issues with the press himself. Unlike others in the administration, he is also unfailingly polite and even-tempered in his dealings with reporters.
Still, Mattis’s reticence to speak publicly and openly with the media follows the Trump administration’s trend of denying the public access to the thoughts of senior officials. In this case, it does so with a man responsible for making literal life-or-death decisions. Mattis is the White House’s most effective and credible advocate; it would benefit Trump, and the country, if the defense chief used his microphone more often.