Bolton’s Whisper Campaign to Oust Mattis

Sources say the hawkish national security advisor is behind rumors that the defense secretary plans to resign.

U.S. President Donald Trump, center, walks with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, third from left, and National Security Advisor John Bolton, second from left, during the NATO summit in Brussels, on July 11. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, center, walks with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, third from left, and National Security Advisor John Bolton, second from left, during the NATO summit in Brussels, on July 11. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

White House National Security Advisor John Bolton and his deputy are trying to squeeze out U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis by spreading rumors about his imminent departure, according to two well-placed sources.

Bolton and Mira Ricardel, the deputy national security advisor, who has repeatedly clashed with Mattis over Defense Department personnel appointments, believe the defense secretary is “not ideologically aligned” with President Donald Trump’s administration, according to one of the sources, a former senior defense official. The two are trying “to build the sense that he is done for,” the former official said.

“They have the knives out.”

One Trump administration official noted, “Mira and Bolton are the only ones who benefit if Secretary Mattis leaves.” The secretary is “highly regarded” within the cabinet and by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, the official said.

The question of Mattis’s departure is closely watched in Washington, in part because he’s viewed as an experienced professional with a steady hand in an administration often plagued by turmoil. In countries that have had disputes with the Trump administration—on Iran or NATO, for example—knowing that Mattis has a voice in decision-making has been reassuring.

The former official said the irregularity of National Security Council meetings—in which the president gets assessments and opinions from an array of officials, including the defense secretary—is a point of frustration for the Pentagon. 

“What that means is that the president is not regularly hearing in any organized and disciplined fashion from the full range of his advisors,” the former official said. “He is getting [the meetings] one-off and ad hoc, and often controlled by Bolton.”

The issue has caused tensions between Mattis and Bolton in the past, though a second administration official described this characterization as “100% Mattis spin machine.” A White House official noted that Bolton, Mattis, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meet “almost weekly” for breakfast to discuss national security policy.

NSC spokesman Garrett Marquis also denied the allegations.

“Ambassador Bolton is working closely with Secretary Mattis to implement the President’s agenda,” Marquis said. “Any indication otherwise is flatly wrong.”

Dana White, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, said that “DoD officials regularly attend and contribute to NSC and interagency meetings.

“Any suggestion otherwise is simply not true.”

Mattis’s departure after the November midterm elections has been rumored for months. Trump gave the first clear signal that he might be souring on his defense secretary during a 60 Minutes interview that aired Oct. 14.

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

But Mattis dismissed talk of his imminent departure from the Trump administration.

“I’m on his team. We have never talked about me leaving,” he told reporters on Oct. 15. “We just continue doing our job.”

The denial did not stem speculation about when and how Mattis would leave, and who would be chosen to replace him.

But Mattis’s allies insist the defense secretary will not resign. If Trump wants him out—and that’s still a big “if,” they say—the president will have to fire him.

“I’ve known him for a long time, and he will not walk away,” said Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy who was Mattis’s first choice for deputy defense secretary (she ultimately turned him down).

“They may force him out, but he won’t quit,” Flournoy said. “He feels duty-bound to be there.”

A former senior military commander echoed the sentiment.

“He’s not the kind of guy who takes a knee.”

Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, said there was no clear sign yet that the Mattis era in the Pentagon is coming to an end.

“I don’t think we should presuppose that he is leaving,” O’Hanlon said.

But other sources say Mattis does indeed plan to resign after the midterms.

Soon after Nov. 6, “he will either be gone, or he will make it clear that he is leaving,” said a second administration official. “The reality is it’s not working anymore, and this is the ideal time to make a break.”

The administration has had its share of high-level departures, some smooth and some ugly. Mattis has many supporters in Washington, among both Republicans and Democrats, making it politically risky for Trump to move against him in a way that might be seen as disrespectful.

“Secretary Mattis brings great respect and gravitas,” said Tom Spoehr, the director of the Center for National Defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Flournoy noted that Mattis has managed to keep America’s defense alliances on track “despite the uncertainty and unpredictability of broader U.S. policy.”

Inside the department as well, “he has been a real source of stability,” she added.

O’Hanlon agreed, noting that many of the administration’s recent national security decisions bear Mattis’s fingerprints.

“You can just tell, any time there is a big decision, whatever Trump might’ve been tweeting, the decision seems to reflect a calmer approach,” he said. “Some of the people on the shortlist [to replace him] scare me as not having that kind of wise man, elder statesman, retired general quality.”

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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