In the revolving door of the Trump administration, few senior officials can afford to get comfortable. There are signs that the next departure could be Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Politico reported this morning that senior national security leaders fear Trump could remove Mattis after November’s midterm elections. Earlier this week, in an interview with the Associated Press, Trump called Mattis a “sort of Democrat.”
An anonymous military official also told Politico, “POTUS is getting rid of him after midterms”. They added, “it’s something they’ve wanted to do for a while.”
Loren Thompson, a defense industry consultant explained to Politico, “what it comes down to is that Trump and Mattis don’t see eye to eye. Trump is a change agent and Mattis is largely a product of the existing viewpoint, the status quo”.
However, it is the loss of Mattis as a force of stability in the Pentagon that has senior security officials worried.
Mattis has played a central role in checking some of Trump’s more extreme foreign policy decisions. Mattis was a significant factor in curbing Trump’s ambition to carpet bomb ISIS-controlled territories.
He also helped coordinate a measured response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, pushing for limited strikes against just three targets. Mattis also vehemently opposed Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
Without Mattis, many believe Trump’s future foreign policy could take a more hawkish appearance. Senator Brian Schatz expressed his concerns to Politico, “Secretary Mattis is one of the only reassuring figures in the Trump administration”, he said, “knowing that Secretary Mattis is there strengthens our hand”.
Replacing Mattis with a more hawkish Defense Secretary would be fitting with Trump’s other senior appointments. He replaced former National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster with the hawkish John Bolton. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also significantly more conservative than his predecessor, Rex Tillerson.
These appointments may have helped seal Mattis’ fate. The unnamed military official told Politico, “Mattis executed his own foreign policy”, they said, “he was able to get away with it by partnering with Tillerson and making McMaster irrelevant. Now, with Pompeo and Bolton in, the jig is up”.
Mattis’ replacement will have a central role in shaping the nation’s military leadership. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford is expected to retire in the near future, as is the most senior military official in Europe, Army General Curtis Scaparotti. The next Secretary of Defense will be tasked with appointing their replacements.
The replacement of Mattis could lead to a hawkish coup of the senior military command, leaving the most extreme aspects of Trump’s foreign policy to roam unchecked.
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Oliver is a UK-born freelance writer and journalist based in Boston. He is a self-confessed politics junkie with a passion for foreign and environmental policy. His work has been featured on Open Democracy, International Policy Digest, and the London Economic. He was a regular contributor for ASEAN Today.