There are other passages in Woodward’s book, a copy of which was obtained by The Atlantic ahead of its release next week, that bolster this representation of Mattis. Woodward writes, for example, that the president “scared the daylights” out of Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford in January—around the time Trump was engaged in a nuclear button–measuring contest with Kim Jong Un—by proposing that he declare on Twitter that he would be evacuating all family members of U.S. troops from South Korea, which North Korean leaders would likely have interpreted as a clear sign that war was imminent. The tweet was never sent.
Don’t blame Trump’s advisers for Trump.
But Woodward’s reporting also reveals how Mattis has improbably stayed in Trump’s good graces. He ducks the media, refusing former Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s repeated requests to appear on Sunday talk shows. He finds himself at odds with the president on many major military and foreign-policy issues—U.S. involvement in the Syrian war, America’s military alliances in Europe and Asia, transgender Americans serving in the military—but seems to take his policy defeats (failing to persuade the president to remain in the Iran nuclear deal, for instance) in stride with his unlikely victories (persuading Trump to commit more troops to the war in Afghanistan). He puts only so much stock in face time. “Mattis tried to limit his visits to the White House and stick to military business as much as possible,” Woodward writes.
Woodward also portrays Mattis as sometimes advocating for his more traditionalist foreign-policy positions in passably Trumpian terms. Yes, by Woodward’s account he pointedly informed Trump that America’s forward military deployment in Korea is intended to avert World War III. But by the same account, Mattis also made a cost-benefit argument designed to appeal to a transactional president far more interested in fending off external threats than in leading the free world: that the alliance with South Korea was, as Woodward put it, “one of the great national security bargains of all time.” Part of Mattis’s case against pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, in Woodward’s account, was that Trump, who often styles himself the anti–Barack Obama, shouldn’t leave behind a safe haven for terrorists the way his predecessor did in Iraq.
This, Woodward writes, is the Mattis way: “avoid the confrontation, demonstrate respect and deference, proceed smartly with business, travel as much as possible, get and stay out of town.”
But Woodward’s book itself has presented the starkest test yet of the Mattis way. The defense secretary may be proceeding with business as usual in South Asia this week, but the town and the confrontation have now come to him. And the open question is whether the survivor can survive the test. Mattis was quick to assert that the “contemptuous words about the President attributed to me in Woodward’s book were never uttered by me or in my presence,” and so far that seems to have done the trick. Trump has taken Mattis’s denial and run with it—repeatedly airing the defense secretary’s statement on Twitter, characterizing the quotes as fabrications, and praising Mattis to reporters as “a terrific person” doing “a fantastic job as secretary of defense.”