For the two years retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis served as President Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, he was a ghost when it came to interactions with the press.
He shrank the number of reporters allowed to travel with him on official trips, held almost no on-camera press briefings at the Pentagon, and rarely appeared on the Sunday news talk shows where administration officials are frequent and expected guests.
With some regularity, he would informally drop by the Pentagon press corps’ office and answer reporters’ questions — just as long as he wasn’t televised, often saying he felt more comfortable that way.
But if you only arrived on the planet a week ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking James Mattis adores being in the media spotlight almost as much as Trump himself.
Just this week, he’s appeared on PBS Newshour, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN to talk about the importance of principled leadership and lifelong learning. He’s done some print interviews and think tank appearances. (Interestingly, he has mostly avoided sitting down with Pentagon reporters, save for CBS’s David Martin.)
So what gives? Did Mattis just have a change of heart? Did he have an epiphany, suddenly realizing that he has a solemn patriotic duty to inform the American people about the state of the nation?
Nah. He just has a new memoir to sell.
It seems Mattis is a whole lot less camera shy when he stands to make a buck.
Mattis shunned the press — and his democratic duty — as defense secretary
Mattis was often described as one of the “adults in the room,” the handful of sober, level-headed advisers (including former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson) who frequently tried to either slow-walk or beat back many of Trump’s most impulsive and destructive ideas.
He also made headlines when he resigned in an uncharacteristically dramatic fashion last December over a disagreement with the president’s policy in Syria. Mattis sent a strongly worded resignation letter to the president in which he said he was stepping down because the president had “the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours” and subtly rebuked Trump’s worldview.
But Mattis’s most lasting legacy will be his years-long stiff arm of the Pentagon press corps. As defense secretary, he classified once publicly available information, curtailed Pentagon officials’ public engagements, and rarely spoke on the record while cameras rolled.
His reticence was somewhat understandable, if frustrating to defense reporters like myself — after all, staying off camera made it easier to avoid Trump’s ire, especially if Mattis said anything the president might deem as a rebuke.
He also had a lot on his plate, not least of which was overseeing multiple wars. Mattis, then, surely preferred to focus on his day-to-day responsibilities instead of preparing for a Sunday news show interview or to face Pentagon press.
But if Mattis didn’t want to regularly engage the media and face the American people, he shouldn’t have taken the Pentagon job. The nation’s defense chief has a duty to explain to voters critical things like why US troops are being sent into harm’s way and how American tax dollars are being spent under an ever-growing defense budget, and to clarify the administration’s security and defense policies more generally.
He routinely left the public mostly in the dark as to what the nation’s top defense official thought about these matters. That left ample space for the president to send mixed messages about US operations around the world, which only made it harder for American voters, allies, and enemies to have a clear picture of the actions and intentions of the most powerful military on the planet.
But now that he’s peddling a new book — which by most accounts is an interesting read — he can’t get enough of media engagement. We’ve seen more of Mattis this week than we ever saw of him as Trump’s defense chief.
Which tells us one very important fact about Mattis: He didn’t shirk his duty to inform the American people because he’s genuinely camera shy, but rather because he was scared of accidentally pissing off his cable news-obsessed boss.
Mattis may not see a big problem with that. But one would think that a man touring the country to promote a new memoir opining on the importance of leadership would know just how poor an example his actions set at the Defense Department.
The Pentagon continues to shun the press
Current defense chief Mark Esper has vowed to hold more on-camera briefings, going so far as to hold one alongside Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Joseph Dunford in August. “I intend to do these briefings to maintain an open dialogue about the department’s activities,” he said at the time, adding that he would ask his staff to do more regular press briefings too.
But that hasn’t really happened yet. Esper hasn’t been on camera since, and Pentagon officials didn’t want to hold an on-the-record briefing this week about using military funds to build the southern border wall. Instead, staff offered information “on background” where they could only be quoted as “senior defense officials” rather than by name.
The precedent Mattis set during his time at the Pentagon, in other words, has lasted beyond his tenure.
The Pentagon’s relations with reporters continue to be very rocky, and Mattis shoulders much of the blame for that. As a result, the American people continue to be in the dark about what the US military is really doing in their name.
Too bad Mattis didn’t write a book about that.