Mattis bites back

President Donald Trump and then Secretary of Defence James Mattis arriving at a reception last October. Mr Mattis resigned from his position in December last year. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST
President Donald Trump and then Secretary of Defence James Mattis arriving at a reception last October. Mr Mattis resigned from his position in December last year. PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

Ex-defence secretary breaks silence in jabs at Trump but critics say he should go further

WASHINGTON • For the past year, former US defence secretary James Mattis has taken heat for his reluctance to directly criticise President Donald Trump, especially after he resigned from the position in protest last December.

The retired Marine Corps general has consistently demurred when asked to rebuke Mr Trump's foreign relations or military decisions.

Last Thursday, Mr Mattis dropped that tendency as he saturated a comedic keynote address with jabs at Mr Trump, who last week called his former Cabinet official "the world's most overrated general".

"I'm honoured to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress," Mr Mattis said in his keynote speech at the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York. "So, I guess I'm the Meryl Streep of generals."

When Mr Mattis stepped down, the former defence secretary, who sparred with Mr Trump over military actions between 2016 and last year, said the President deserved to have someone "whose views are better aligned" in his Cabinet.

Last Sunday, Mr Mattis offered words of caution regarding Mr Trump's decision to pull US troops out of Syria during an interview on Meet The Press, warning that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would "resurge" without military pressure in the region.

The President did not appreciate the former general airing those concerns publicly.

"You know why?" Mr Trump said last Wednesday. "He wasn't tough enough. I captured ISIS. Mattis said it would take two years. I captured them in one month."

MERYL STREEP OF GENERALS

I'm honoured to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress. So, I guess I'm the Meryl Streep of generals.

FORMER U.S. DEFENCE SECRETARY JAMES MATTIS, on being called "the world's most overrated general" by Mr Trump.

Last Thursday evening, Mr Mattis did not stop at responding to the President's recent barb.

He also teased Mr Trump for dodging the Vietnam War draft because of the "bone spurs" that the President has said he had in his heels.

"I earned my spurs on the battlefield," Mr Mattis said.

"Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor."

Mr Mattis also mocked the President's love of fast food.

"I think the only person in the military that Mr Trump doesn't think is overrated", the retired general said, "is Colonel Sanders".

Several high-profile politicians at the dinner, including Senate minority leader Charles Schumer, saluted Mr Mattis' flippant speech.

But for other observers, Mr Mattis' zingers drew attention to the military officer's reticence to substantively criticise the President.

"I know he's speaking at a dinner meant for jokes, but this is just an absurd and undignified way for Mattis to make his first public critiques of the President," Brookings Institution senior fellow and Lawfare blog executive editor Susan Hennessey said in a tweet. "After indefensible silence, this will surely undercut the gravity of any future words he might have on the subject."

Professor Thomas Nichols, from the US Naval War College, said that he did not think the speech was an occasion for laughter.

"It's his facile way of dodging the reality that he knows a lot about what happened in this White House, including what are now obviously impeachable acts directly related to his time as sec def," he wrote on Twitter.

Mr Mattis has defended his decision to keep his personal beliefs about the Trump administration private. "If you leave an administration, you owe some silence," he told The Atlantic in August.

"When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country. They still have the responsibility of protecting this great big experiment of ours."

Since leaving Mr Trump's Cabinet, the former defence secretary has remained mostly mum on US foreign and military policy.

Even in his recently released memoir, Call Sign Chaos: Learning To Lead, the former military leader refrains from discussing much of his time in the Trump administration.

Mr Mattis has hinted that one day he may speak out against Mr Trump's policy decisions more directly, saying he does not owe the President his silence "forever".

Some wondered last Thursday evening if his jokes were a harbinger of more substantive criticisms.

To laughter and applause, Mr Mattis struck another comedic blow at the dinner, this time emphasising his own illustrious military career.

"You do have to admit", he said, "between me and Meryl, at least we've had some victories".

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 20, 2019, with the headline 'Mattis bites back'. Print Edition | Subscribe