Shadow Government

Here’s How Trump’s ‘Axis of Adults’ Weathered the First 100 Days

Amongst the chaos and the tweets, some of the more reassuring steps of the first 100 days of the Donald Trump Presidency were the appointments of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster.

US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster looks on as US President Donald Trump announces him as his national security adviser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster looks on as US President Donald Trump announces him as his national security adviser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Amongst the chaos and the tweets, some of the more reassuring steps of the first 100 days of the Donald Trump presidency were the appointments of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster — the so-called “axis of adults” — to the three most consequential national security positions in the U.S. government. It is easy to grade their performance on a curve and just be thankful our security is not in the hands of Michael Flynn, John Bolton, and Rudy Giuliani (contemplate that for a moment). But we should not fall into that trap. Instead, we should evaluate their performance based on the traditional standard we have come to expect from officials serving in these immensely important roles. Based on that standard, Mattis is off to a strong start, though could use improvement in some areas. Tillerson has established a strong rapport with Trump, but is failing quite badly as the leader of the Sate Department. And McMaster has done okay in seizing control of the process, but that has yet to translate into effective coordination across the U.S. government — his primary responsibility.

Positive reviews at the Pentagon

Overall, Mattis is off to a strong start. He was one of the few Trump nominees to breeze through the confirmation process, bringing him into the job in a politically strong position as perhaps the most politically indispensable cabinet official in the administration. He has used that leverage to act independently in conducting well-reviewed trips to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, providing a vital message of reassurance while the administration was still getting its sea legs in the early weeks. Perhaps his most important moment came after the chemical weapons attack in Syria earlier this month, after which the Pentagon was quickly able to provide the president with a clear set of military options that led to a well-executed operation.

Mattis has also received high marks for his management of the department. Like all agency heads, he has struggled with a lack of senior staff, due to a dysfunctional vetting for loyalty process being managed out of the White House. He has responded by engaging more directly with the experts in the department. There are stories of action officers getting phone calls from the secretary asking them about a paper they wrote. He has been known to wander into an office to engage with a specific subject matter expert or author of a memo. This is unusual and sometimes unnerving for Pentagon staff (imagine being the junior desk officer who was working out at the gym and came back to a voicemail from the secretary of defense). But it is appreciated, and is clearly a signal that as a retired four-star general, the man knows how to utilize a large staff and take advantage of the expertise at this disposal.

Still, there are two areas where Mattis should strive to improve. The first has to do with maintaining civilian authority over his commanders. Mattis as a retired general is keenly aware of the need to give his commanders the freedom to make the necessary calls on the battlefield. But on a number of occasions, we have seen this freedom go too far. The most striking example was the decision by U.S. Pacific Command to announce that the Carl Vinson strike group was heading towards the Korean Peninsula in the midst of escalating tensions. Regardless of the series of missteps that came afterwards regarding the precise position of the Vinson, one of the biggest problems was that military commanders were under the impression they could take this strategic step at a highly political and sensitive moment without checking with the civilian leadership. Another example was the deployment of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast in Afghanistan against Islamic State targets, again without consultation with civilian leadership, despite the fact that it clearly became another example of strategic signaling. This does not mean that in some cases further delegation down is not merited. But the pendulum has swung too far, and Mattis would be wise to pull back the reins.

The other challenge for Mattis is that his front office staff — the people who directly surround him and ultimately make decisions and recommendations about what papers he sees, meetings he takes, and officials he hires — are all from a military background. They understand how the military works, but not necessarily how a civilian agency does. And certainly his immediate staff has not been equipped to handle the highly political environment in Washington. He and his staff for example have engaged with a parade of never-Trumpers, and in some cases democrats, on potential positions, only to have wasted a lot of time and have them all scuttled at the White House. In the most high-profile example, Mattis reportedly pushed for Anne Patterson to take the number three position at the Pentagon, as the undersecretary of defense for policy. Patterson is a highly capable diplomat and an excellent choice, but she had also been through a bruising fight with Republicans over her willingness to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood when she was ambassador to Egypt in 2012. It was quite obvious to any outside observer who understood the politics of Washington that this would be a problem for a president who has spoken out so forcefully against Islam. Mattis needs to bring in at least one senior staffer who gets the politics of Washington and the civilian side and can help him avoid some of these missteps.

Despondency at the State Department

Tillerson is not doing nearly as well as Mattis. His biggest success has been in gaining the trust of the president, who he now meets or dines with multiple times a week. This is critical, especially for the secretary of state. The Pentagon has a massive budget and military resources, which allow Mattis to exercise his bureaucratic strength and influence over foreign policy independently. But for the State Department, the options are much more limited. The secretary of state draws his international credibility from his ability to speak for the president. And it was clear early in the administration that Tillerson did not have that relationship. This has clearly changed and is a good thing.

But shockingly, the former CEO of one of the world’s largest companies has performed disastrously as a manager of the State Department. As opposed to Mattis who has mined the bureaucracy’s expertise to make himself a more effective secretary, Tillerson has kept himself in a bubble. No one at the department seems to know what is happening on the seventh floor and he and his team are not reaching out. The result has been a series of rookie mistakes that could easily have been avoided. Most notable was Tillerson’s initial decision to not go to the NATO ministerial summit in early April, which sent shockwaves through the alliance, as it was interpreted as an unprecedented pullback. The problem was the overlap with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Trump’s Mar-o-Lago estate, and the NATO ministerial summit was eventually rescheduled. But this could have been easily avoided with a regular senior staff meeting where the overlap could have been flagged weeks earlier and alternative arrangements made. Tillerson’s decision not to take press with him to Asia was another unnecessary mistake. When he spent more time with the Japanese than the Koreans, the Koreans spun it in the local press as him being “fatigued.” And without the U.S. press corps there, he had no way to respond. Being open to more advice from experienced diplomats could have helped him avoid these mistakes.

Now comes word that Tillerson plans to keep key senior State Department positions vacant until 2018 while he undertakes a listening tour and proposes reforms for the department. If that was the plan all along, why did he spend his first 100 days holed up on the seventh floor? The listening tour should have started much earlier. No one believes that the State Department does not have problems and need reform, but the answer is not to starve it of money. Indeed, many of the sources of the department’s problems result from years of chronic underfunding. Moreover, there are some critical posts that we know need to be filled regardless of the reform process. The under secretary of state for political affairs is the number three in the department and a crucial force multiplier for the secretary, able to go places and represent him when he is unavailable. And the assistant secretaries of state for key regions — the Middle East, East Asia, and Europe — are crucial for providing advice and conducting diplomacy in the areas of the world where America’s interests are most engaged. It is hard to imagine that a review would end with senior officials not responsible for these regions. He should nominate them now.

Incomplete for McMaster

H.R. McCMaster has been on the job for less time than either Mattis or TIllerson, and given the challenging conditions under which he came in, he deserves to be given more time. Most positively, he has succeeded in seizing control of the interagency process. Getting White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon off of the National Security Council principals committee and sidelining the alternative foreign policy operation he was developing out of the West Wing was a critical bureaucratic move. And getting K.T. McFarland out of the deputy national security advisor role — perhaps the single most important position for coordinating decision-making across the U.S. government — was another important step.

However, in terms of results, McMaster has yet to deliver. The most important thing the national security advisor does is bringing the key players in the interagency together to form a cohesive, coherent, and consistent foreign policy. He is the one ultimately charged with supervising all the policy reviews the administration is currently running. But on one policy after another, there is still no coherence. In the aftermath of the missile strikes on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, confusion about whether the United States would insist on his removal reigned supreme. U.N. Ambassador Nicki Haley was out calling for regime change at the U.N. while Tillerson and McMaster were much more circumspect. On North Korea, the administration has made a big show of pursuing an entirely new strategy, but aside from some tougher rhetoric, there seems to be no apparent plan to back that strategy up.

In fairness to McMaster, it is hard to maintain message discipline and run a tight process with a president who is so unpredictable. And McMaster’s job is not to make the key decisions, but to tee them up for the president. Ultimately, that is the biggest challenge the axis of adults will continue to face. The buck stops at the Oval Office, and no matter how much positive work Trump’s national security team does, 100 days in it appears this president simply does not have the discipline or temperament to be the steward of U.S. national security. 

Photo credits: ALEX WONG/Getty Images, NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images, JONATHAN ERNST/Pool/Getty Images

Ilan Goldenberg is the director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Twitter: @ilangoldenberg

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