Secretary of Defense James Mattis is, according to the vast majority of people who have met him or served under him in the Marines, a courageous, disciplined, and efficient leader. Mattis’s reputation for fairness, honor etc. is so strong that it has even endured his job as Secretary of Defense in the Trump Administration. On Tuesday, though, Mattis took the coward’s way out.
During an event at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday, moderators reportedly prevented reporters from asking Mattis any questions about why he was going along with the President’s wild political stunt to send 5,200 or more troops to the U.S. border to try to frighten away a caravan of 4,000 or so refugees from Honduras and Central America.
Mattis didn’t shy away from other topics during his speech (you can watch it in full here). He discussed the U.S. involvement in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing massacre of Yemen, election cybersecurity for the midterms, the U.S.’s relationship with Russia, etc. But there were no questions about the border troops. I reached out to USIP to ask whose decision it was to pre-screen Mattis’s questions, I’ll update this post if I hear back.
Regardless of that, this is Mattis’s job. He is the leader of the entire Department of Defense. Kelly Magsamen, a former Obama and Bush-era NSC official, put it pretty bluntly: Mattis should defend this or resign.
If Mattis does not believe the migrants are a threat that warrants tasking 5,000 active troops to the border, he should say so and resign. If he does believe it, he should explain why, in detail before Congress, immediately. If Republicans in Congress won’t put Mattis in the witness chair, he should walk to the Pentagon briefing room and do it himself.
Mattis should be prepared to face serious questions from members of Congress about why this mission requires double the active duty troops, what exactly the mission and authority structure of these active duty troops will be, how long they will be deployed, how the Pentagon will pay for this deployment and what other national security priorities will be affected by this choice. This is a deliberate misuse of our hard-working active duty military and arguably an abuse of power by the President.
To put this in a little more perspective, a new report today in the Washington Post notes that the troops going down to the border are rolling pretty heavy (emphasis mine):
The Marine Corps will deploy military police and a special-purpose task force headquarters as part of the U.S. military’s mission, while the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division will deploy helicopters, according to the documents. Troops will deploy with a mixture of lethal and nonlethal weapons and are authorized to use deadly force in defense of “all persons, foreign or domestic, who are faced with imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm, and where lesser means have failed or cannot be reasonably employed.”
The military operation, dubbed Faithful Patriot, is designed to help the CBP “impede or deny illegal crossings, maintain situational awareness and apply the appropriate law enforcement response,” according to the documents.
Mattis is sending 5,200 or more of his active duty troops—not national guard or other forces—at the express order of the president. He’s not saying how much it costs or whether or not it makes sense to him (the Post didn’t get a response from him either).
Look, we get it: he’s in a tough spot. Assuming Mattis wants to keep his job, defying the president is something he can’t really do. He’s got three choices here: step up and say that this whole thing is bullshit and his soldiers have better stuff to do than stand around and do busywork on the border, step up and repeat other generals weak-ass justifications of the troop movement, or just dodge questions about the whole thing and hope it blows over. That third one is pretty craven, and so far, it’s what Mattis is going with.
Correction, 10:53 p.m. ET: The first sentence of this story originally referred to James Mattis as a “leader of men.” That is an incorrect characterization, Mattis leads people of more than one gender.
The sentence now reads: Secretary of Defense James Mattis is, according to the vast majority of people who have met him or served under him in the Marines, a courageous, disciplined, and efficient leader.