Report

Who Will Replace Mattis?

Trump signals in an interview that his defense secretary might be out.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis speaks to members of the press before a press briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 28. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis speaks to members of the press before a press briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 28. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Rumors have circulated for months that U.S. President Donald Trump is souring on Defense Secretary James Mattis and wants to replace him with someone more in line with his own hawkish views. In an interview with 60 Minutes that aired on Sunday, Trump gave the clearest signal yet that the retired U.S. Marine Corps general and former head of U.S. Central Command could be the next member of his cabinet to get the ax.

Trump hinted during the interview that he could soon be “changing things around” and indicated that he was not satisfied with certain members of his administration.

“I have people now on standby that will be phenomenal,” Trump told CBS News correspondent Lesley Stahl. “There are some people that I’m not happy with.”

When pressed, Trump would not say with certainty that Mattis would soon depart. But he didn’t deny it either. Then he twisted the knife:

“I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth. … He may leave.”

The Defense Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But the defense secretary has increasingly been squeezed out of important policy decisions—by John Bolton, the newly emboldened national security advisor, and Trump favorite Mike Pompeo, his secretary of state.

Mattis is traveling to Vietnam this week, a rare second visit this year to that country, as the United States tries to counter China’s military assertiveness.

Given Mattis’s popularity with key segments of Trump’s base, the administration will likely set him up for a graceful exit, rather than an embarrassing firing. But a number of names are already being floated as his replacement.

Sen. Tom Cotton, the 41-year-old Arkansas Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on airland, was on Trump’s shortlist for defense secretary back in 2016, before the president ultimately settled on Mattis. The two-time combat veteran won a seat in the House of Representatives in 2012 as part of the Tea Party movement and is well known for his hawkish views—he is on record supporting waterboarding and regime change in Iran.

Among the downsides of a Cotton appointment: The Republican Party would have to give up an important chairmanship and seat in the Senate.

The president also has his eye on David McCormick, a West Point grad, combat veteran, and co-CEO of the global macro investment firm Bridgewater Associates, according to one administration source. McCormick, who served as undersecretary of the treasury for international affairs in the George W. Bush administration, is deeply entrenched in Trumpland, running in the same social circles as first daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, the source said. He is also the fiancé of Dina Powell, Trump’s former deputy national security advisor for strategy and one of the leading candidates to replace U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Other possible contenders for the job are retired four-star Army Gen. Jack Keane, who was reportedly tapped for the job before Mattis but declined due to family issues, and former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent. Talent was also on the 2016 shortlist.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the hawkish Republican from South Carolina, could also be in the running, but Graham is also said to be a contender to replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general.

Dan Coats, Trump’s director of national intelligence, is also a leading candidate, according to the administration source.

Mattis may not make it easy for the president to get rid of him. Several officials familiar with Mattis’s thinking indicated that he wouldn’t leave voluntarily.

“People kept saying to me: ‘When is Mattis going to quit?’ The answer is ‘never,’” said Barbara Leaf, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates until this March. “He will stay through to the end of the administration because that’s who he is.”

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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