Former Defense Secretary James Mattis declined to carry out orders from President Trump or otherwise limited his options in various attempts to prevent tensions with North Korea, Iran and Syria from escalating, The New Yorker reported Monday, the latest account of Trump’s own officials trying to check his worst instincts.
“The President thinks out loud. Do you treat it like an order? Or do you treat it as part of a longer conversation? We treated it as part of a longer conversation,” a former senior national security official told The New Yorker. “We prevented a lot of bad things from happening.”
In 2017, following a series of North Korean ballistic missile tests, Trump ordered the Pentagon to begin removing the spouses and children of military personnel from South Korea, where the U.S. military has a base. An administration official told the magazine that “Mattis just ignored” the order, The Hill reported.
In another instance in the fall of 2017, as White House officials were planning a private meeting at Camp David to develop military options for a possible conflict with North Korea, Mattis allegedly stopped the gathering from happening. He ignored a request from then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster to send officers and planners, according to a former senior administration official.
The accounts, included in a profile of national security adviser John Bolton, reveal that the former Marine Corps general routinely sought to downplay any potential conflicts across the globe. Mattis resigned from his Pentagon position last December, one day after Trump announced that he would withdraw troops from Syria, a decision Mattis opposed.
As Iraq was preparing for parliamentary elections in late 2017, McMaster was worried about any meddling from Iran and asked the Pentagon to give options to counter such a move. A former McMaster aide said Mattis later sent a Pentagon official to the White House without any options in hand.
“I asked him what happened to the options,” the former aide told The New Yorker. “He told me, ‘We resisted those’. You could feel everyone in the meeting go, ‘Excuse me?’”
Mattis also reportedly prevented Gen. John Nicholson, then head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, from meeting Trump, The Hill adds.
After Bolton replaced McMaster, he asked the Pentagon for multiple options in April 2018, after Syrian President Bashar Assad dropped chemical weapons on civilians in a suburb of Damascus. Mattis gave only one option, a limited strike with cruise missiles, which angered Bolton.
Administration officials also told the magazine that Mattis was likely attempting to limit information to Trump so he could not make ill-advised decisions.