Mattis is out of the loop and Trump doesn't listen to him, say officials

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary James Mattis learned in May from a colleague that President Donald Trump had made the decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, and scrambled to get his boss on the phone before a formal announcement was made. It wouldn't be the last time he was caught off guard by a presidential announcement.

A month later, Mattis was informed that Trump had ordered a pause in U.S. military exercises with South Korea only after the president had already promised the concession to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Last week, Trump again blindsided and overruled his defense secretary by publicly directing the Pentagon to create a sixth military branch overseeing operations in space.

The way these recent presidential decisions on major national security issues have played out, as detailed by current and former White House and defense officials, underscores a significant change in Mattis's role in recent months. The president is relying less and less on the advice of one of the longest-serving members of his cabinet, the officials said.

"They don't really see eye to eye," said a former senior White House official who has closely observed the relationship.

It's a stark contrast to Trump's early enthusiasm for the retired four-star Marine general he proudly referred to as "Mad Dog." And while the two men had disagreements from the start — on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects, for instance — Trump still kept Mattis in the loop on major decisions and heeded his counsel.

"He's never been one of the go-tos in the gang that's very close to the president," a senior White House official said. "But the president has a lot of respect for him."

Secretary of Defense James Mattis
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Secretary of Defense James Mattis

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis walks out after a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in Bedminster Township, N.J. on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016.

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence greet retired Marine General James Mattis for a meeting at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Retired Marine General James Mattis departs as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump walks back into the main clubhouse following their meeting at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster following their meeting at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Mike Segar)

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump stands with retired Marine Gen. James Mattis following their meeting at the main clubhouse at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, U.S., November 19, 2016.

(REUTERS/Mike Segar)

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James 'Jim' Mattis and Operation Gratitude Founder Carolyn Blashek speak during the DIRECTV and Operation Gratitude day of service at the fifth annual DIRECTV Dealer Revolution Conference at Caesars Palace on July 23, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

(Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for DIRECTV)

Egyptian Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Sami Anan shakes hands with US Commander of the Central Command James Mattis during a meeting in Cairo on March 29, 2011.


Retired Marine Corps Gen. James 'Jim' Mattis speaks during the DIRECTV and Operation Gratitude day of service at the fifth annual DIRECTV Dealer Revolution Conference at Caesars Palace on July 23, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

(Photo by Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for DIRECTV)

Retired Marine Corps Gen. James 'Jim' Mattis, former commander of the U.S. Central Command testifies before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee on 'Threats Posed by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), AQ (al Qaeda), and Other Islamic Extremists' on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., September 18, 2014. Yesterday the House approved President Obama's plan to train Syrian rebels to counter ISIL.

(Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

Marine Corps General James Mattis, commander of the US Central Command, appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, March 1, 2011. Enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya would first require a military operation to destroy the north African nation's air defense systems, top US commander General James Mattis warned Tuesday. A no-fly zone would require removing 'the air defense capability first,' Mattis told a Senate hearing. 'It would be a military operation,' he added.


U.S. Joint Forces Command Commander James Mattis speaks during the 2010 Atlantic Council awards dinner at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on April 28, 2010 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Kuwait Major General James Mattis, a high ranking Marine commander who also led troops into Afghanistan, visits Living Support Area one in Kuwait near the Iraqi border where troops are poised to begin a war against Iraq if called to do so by the President of the United States.

(Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis addresses a news conference during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis attend a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testifies to the House Armed Services Committee on "The National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reviews the guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony in Hanoi, Vietnam January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Kham
U.S. Secretary for Defense, Jim Mattis, sits opposite Britain's Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, before a meeting at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in central London, Britain November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Simon Dawson
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis waits for the arrival of Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli prior to a meeting on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium November 8, 2017. Reuters/Virginia Mayo/Pool
U.S. President Donald Trump (R) and Defense Secretary James Mattis participates in a briefing with senior military leaders at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

In recent months, however, the president has cooled on Mattis, in part because he's come to believe his defense secretary looks down on him and slow-walks his policy directives, according to current and former administration officials.

The dynamic was exacerbated with Trump's announcement in March that he had chosen John Bolton as national security adviser, a move Mattis opposed, and Mike Pompeo's confirmation as secretary of state soon after.

The president is now more inclined to rely on his own instincts or the advice of Pompeo and Bolton, three people familiar with the matter said.

One defense official said there is no indication Trump is unhappy with Mattis, just that he is not in the inner decision-making circle anymore. The official said Mattis does not contradict the president publicly or in the media and does not draw the president's ire.

Asked for comment on NBC's reporting, chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said, "This is pure silliness."

On behalf of the White House, National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said, "For an unnamed expert to claim a department is not in the loop is ludicrous."

Mattis has influenced some key decisions. He was among the advisers last summer who convinced Trump to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He kept Trump from ditching the Iran nuclear deal for more than a year after taking office. This past April, when Trump wanted to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Mattis convinced him to agree — reluctantly — to keep them there to finish the fight against ISIS.

But a second former senior White House official said Mattis doesn't spend much time with the president, and is really only with him for meetings. "[Trump] respected 'Mad Dog Mattis' and thought he was tough," the official said. "But they were never especially close."

Early in the administration it was common for the men to speak on the phone several times per day, but that also has changed, according to a senior defense official.

And a broader shift in the relationship between the president and his defense secretary has occurred during the past six months. It began in earnest when Trump decided in December to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, White House and defense officials said. Mattis opposed the move, saying it would heighten security concerns in the region.

The list of policy decisions Trump has made against Mattis's advice or without his knowledge has since grown. It includes not just withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and ordering the Pentagon to create a so-called "space force," but also barring transgender people from serving openly in the military and a host of moves the president has made as part of negotiations with North Korea, say multiple current and former officials.

Mattis was against Trump deploying the National Guard to the border. When Trump raised the issue with him, Mattis told the president he didn't think it was a good idea but that such a move wasn't under his control as defense secretary, according to one current and one former official.

"[Mattis] didn't feel like the mission was well defined," said a senior White House official.

Trump signed a proclamation in April authorizing the deployment of state National Guard forces to protect the border.

In May, according to two officials familiar with the matter, Mattis learned Trump had made a decision on the Iran deal only after it was finalized. Bolton had made the case for dropping the deal directly to the president in the Oval Office rather than in a meeting with the national security team, as is typical for such decisions. The defense secretary, who was at the Pentagon, called the president's personal secretary, Madeleine Westerhout, saying he needed to speak with him before he made a formal announcement. One source said Mattis was able to reach Trump, while another said he reached either Trump or a White House aide.

Even though the president made the decision without Mattis, one defense official said Mattis was not surprised by the outcome. "He was expecting the decision," said the official. "He just didn't know it was final until he asked."

Mattis had pushed back against Trump's likely decision to abandon the Iran deal for months, but after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster left the administration earlier this year, he stopped objecting so vocally, according to an official familiar with the meeting.

Mattis had benefited from serving with Tillerson and McMaster, because Trump didn't like either of them, officials said. Whenever Tillerson and Mattis both opposed one of Trump's ideas, as they often did, Trump would focus his anger on Tillerson, officials said, adding that the president did the same with McMaster.

Now Mattis is working alongside a secretary of state Trump very much likes and a national security adviser who is more closely aligned with his own views, such as his position on Iran.

In perhaps the most consequential national security initiative Trump has undertaken — direct talks with North Korea's Kim Jong Un — Mattis appears to be on the sidelines. He's had little role before, during and after Trump's Singapore summit with Kim, despite the major U.S. military presence in South Korea, officials said.

A defense official said that ahead of the summit Trump and Mattis spoke about an array of topics that could come up, and canceling the joint military exercises with South Korea was not among them. Mattis was not expecting Trump's announcement on June 12 that the exercises would be cancelled, the official said, and as a result had not notified the two commands most directly involved: U.S. Forces Korea and the South Korean military.

In fact, Secretary Mattis found out from one of his assistant secretaries, Randy Schriver, early Tuesday morning after the summit had concluded, according to a former senior White House official.

Pentagon spokesperson Dana White, however, insisted "there were no surprises."

A senior White House official did not dispute that Mattis found out after the fact, but said, "He knew that it could have been offered. The president was in the room with the leader of North Korea and made the decision."

The joint exercises with South Korea had been seen by top military officials like Mattis as critical to readiness and interoperability in the region. Yet the Pentagon released a statement this week suspending the exercises and referring to them as "war games," a phrase that the U.S. military has traditionally avoided in describing the exercises but is used by North Korea and China.

Trump's June 18 directive to create what he described as a "space force" branch of the military directly contradicted his defense secretary's advice. In October, Mattis wrote a letter to Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying "I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting efforts."

Trump didn't even mention Mattis during his announcement of the space force on June 18. Instead he singled out Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was present at the event, saying "if you would carry that assignment out, I would be very greatly honored."

Afterward, Mattis personally added a line in the statement from the Pentagon that pointedly noted the creation of such a force "has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy," according to a defense official.

The current and former officials said Trump has become tired of what he views as Mattis ignoring or slow-rolling his policy decisions.

Trump blamed Mattis for the bumpy rollout of his changes to the military's transgender policy, said two former administration officials.

A senior defense official said Mattis slow-rolled Trump on the transgender issue early in the administration, though another official said he was simply overseeing a deliberate process that took time.

In spring 2017 Trump asked Mattis to change the Obama-era policy that allowed transgender individuals to serve openly in the military. Trump asked Mattis about it for "a few weeks or maybe even a couple months," but Mattis did not respond with action.

Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chair of the Freedom Caucus, and White House aide Marc Short were among those who told the president Mattis was dragging his feet, said one former official. Eventually Trump tweeted about the change in transgender policy in July, forcing Mattis's hand.

The friction escalated in January when Trump ordered Mattis to end the practice of allowing the family members of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to accompany them during their deployments. But Mattis, with the assistance of Chief of Staff John Kelly, put off implementing the directive, say one defense official and one former administration official, angering Trump.

Trump repeatedly said he wanted to sign an order changing the policy on military dependents in South Korea, but Mattis and other officials, including Kelly, tried to stall him, according to three former officials. "It was kind of like a game of tag. There were plenty of other people, in addition to Mattis, who slow-walked that," the former official said. The order was never implemented.

"He knows that he told them to do it and they didn't do it," another former senior White House official said.

This official said taken individually each of these things was a "low-grade annoyance" for Trump. "But cumulatively they've begun to add up," the official said.

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