Secretary of Defense James Mattis spent the weekend trying to reassure jittery US allies in Singapore and Australia that President Trump has their back. The problem is that Trump keeps suggesting the opposite — even deleting key parts of phrases that would reassure allies.
During a speech in Brussels last week, Trump removed the following phrase from his remarks, reports Politico’s Susan Glasser: “We face many threats, but I stand here before you with a clear message: the US commitment to the NATO alliance and to Article 5 is unwavering.” With that phrase gone, Trump removed the key part that would’ve told NATO allies the US believed in the alliance’s core provision.
That makes Mattis look bad. The Pentagon chief has repeatedly said that the US was committed to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which is meant to deter Russian aggression by promising that an attack on one alliance member would be seen as an attack on all.
If Vladimir Putin sent tanks into Estonia, for instance, Washington would have to come to the small nation’s defense. But Trump’s omission now makes that not as assured as before.
Politico also reported that Mattis wasn’t told about Trump’s decision in advance, meaning the Pentagon chief was caught flat-footed — and undercut, yet again, by his own boss.
And in Asia over the weekend, Mattis again stuck a different chord than his boss. Mattis gave a speech Saturday at a security conference in Singapore, where he stressed that the US commitment to South Korea and Japan was “ironclad.”
Here’s why that matters: Trump has repeatedly suggested he wouldn’t necessarily come to the defense of US allies like those two countries, and instead said they should do more to protect themselves. Mattis’s words are at odds with Trump, leaving foreign capitals unsure of whom to believe.
“I don’t think Mattis’s dissonance with Trump was lost on anyone,” Ely Ratner, a top Asia advisor to then-Vice President Joseph Biden, said in an interview about Mattis’s recent remarks.
Mattis has long been seen as a voice of reason in the chaotic and impulsive Trump administration, a sober-minded and experienced national security professional who believes in the policies that have guided US presidents from both parties for decades.
He’s spent his first months trying to clean up the president’s messes, in Asia and elsewhere. The problem is that Trump keeps making more of them.
Trump is undermining US alliances. Mattis is trying to keep them together.
Mattis has been striking a different tone with Asian and European allies since the start of the administration. In fact, he traveled to Japan and South Korea in February on the first trip for any top Trump administration official.
There was a reason he chose those countries. During a 2016 CNN town hall, Trump told Anderson Cooper that instead of the US protecting Japan and South Korea, it would be better if the countries took care of themselves.
"Japan is better if it protects itself against this maniac of North Korea," then-candidate Trump said. "We are better off frankly if South Korea is going to start protecting itself ... they have to protect themselves or they have to pay us."
He even went on to say that both countries should get nuclear weapons so that they didn’t need to rely on America as much.
Then, as president, Trump removed the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free trade deal with Asian and Latin American countries, claiming it would hurt American workers and the US economy.
None of this sat well with Japanese and South Korean officials for a key reason. America’s relationships with Japan and South Korea are based on two important pillars: security and economics. Trump’s rhetoric put those two pillars in doubt, thereby putting the whole point of the alliances in doubt.
This is why, even though it’s surely uncomfortable, Mattis told those allies what they wanted to hear: The US stands fully behind them.
Sadly, the rattling of allies is not new for this administration. At a Trump speech at NATO on May 25, the president refused to say America would commit to NATO’s Article 5.
That was a big deal — and it came as a surprise to many of Trump’s closest aides. Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster all advocated for Trump to back the agreement. It was believed Trump would do so, as an administration official even told the New York Times the day before that he would.
But the trio was blindsided when the president deleted any reference to Article 5 from the speech. “They didn’t know it had been removed,” a source told Susan Glasser at Politico Magazine recently. “It was only upon delivery.”
It was the most high-profile instance of Trump undermining US global alliances and his own team. In one fell swoop, Trump put in doubt US friendships that have been in place since the end of World War II while baffling his own aides. And now they, and Mattis in particular, are left trying to cover for the mess Trump made.
After the NATO meeting, Mattis tried to explain away Trump’s speech omission to CBS’s John Dickerson. “I think when President Trump chooses to go to NATO personally and stand there alongside the other more than two dozen nations in NATO, that was his statement; not words, actions,” Mattis said.
However, Mattis and Trump have been at odds over Europe, and Russia especially, since before Mattis was even the defense secretary. During his confirmation hearing, Mattis broke with Trump on Russia, saying he worried about the threats emanating from Moscow.
Now Mattis has the Pentagon’s top job, and it’s a tough one, even for a skilled professional like him. But the president isn’t doing him any favors by making him have to constantly reassure allies wherever he goes.
Trump is making his aides’ jobs harder
There was once hope that Mattis, along with Tillerson and McMaster, could temper Trump.
At one point, a Daily Beast story said the trio formed a sort of “axis of adults,” charged with guiding the president through national security matters while also explaining his thinking.
But that hope hasn’t come to fruition. One example was over the US decision to send a missile defense system to South Korea that is meant to help Seoul protect itself from North Korea.
Trump said South Korea should pay $1 billion for the system, for which the US pays a hefty part of the bill, and threatened to end the free trade deal between the countries if his demands weren’t met.
Nevertheless, Mattis, like McMaster, will continue to let allies know the US has their back. However, Trump’s own actions only make that harder.
“After withdrawing from TPP, pulling out of the Paris accords, and Trump dumping on NATO, it’ll take a lot more than [Mattis’s statements] to convince the region that the United States remains committed to its traditional leadership role in Asia and the world,” Ratner said.
Mattis, as well as other administration officials, will continue to clean up the mess the president creates for them. For the secretary, though, that shouldn’t be much of a problem — and national security professionals encourage Mattis to keep speaking out.
“He’s not one to be afraid to go against the grain,” a Democratic congressional aide said in an interview. “It’s encouraging to see from the Hill where we’ve been concerned with losing US leadership in the world.”
So while Mattis has one of the toughest jobs in Washington, it’s made even harder by one of the people who should be helping him out the most: the president.