Mattis’s Successor Signals He Wants to End the Pentagon’s Long Silence
Mark Esper is beefing up his media relations team. But is it too late?
It’s been more than 14 months since a Defense Department press secretary stood on a podium and gave a televised press briefing, a regular practice in previous administrations from both the Republican and Democratic parties. But the long-empty Pentagon briefing room, the front line of so many defining moments in U.S. history, may soon be open for business again.
Just days after Mark Esper was confirmed as U.S. secretary of defense last month, his top spokesman issued new guidance affirming the department’s commitment to transparency and encouraging members of the armed forces to talk to the press. “Simply put, the Department benefits when we thoughtfully engage with the American public, Congressional leaders, international community, and the media,” said Jonathan Hoffman, the assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, in a July 26 memo.
And on Aug. 14, the Pentagon announced the appointment of Alyssa Farah, who previously served as spokeswoman for Vice President Mike Pence, to be the deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for media affairs and the department’s press secretary—the first time the press secretary role has been formally filled since retired Rear Adm. John Kirby left the position in 2015. Farah, who starts after Labor Day, is expected to “eventually” brief from the podium, Hoffman told Foreign Policy.
Experts say these are positive steps toward mending the Pentagon’s relationship with the press, which atrophied during former Defense Secretary James Mattis’s nearly two years in the position and the seven months since his resignation that the department spent without a permanent leader.
Even so, in an administration notable for President Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on the media—whom he often refers to as the “enemy of the people”—many observers are skeptical that Esper and his team will dramatically alter the habits of a department that, even before Trump, was leery of divulging too much information about operations of the U.S. military around the world.
“Secretary Esper has started to talk the talk when it comes to being open with the press,” said Brent Colburn, who served as assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs from 2014 to 2015. During his tenure, on-camera briefings were typically held twice weekly, while off-camera briefings and gaggles occurred daily. “The proof will be if they start to walk the walk,” he said.
The Pentagon Press Association shared Colburn’s cautious optimism.
“It’s early to judge, but we are hopeful that Secretary Esper and his chief spokesman, Jonathan Hoffman, will carry through on their stated intention to increase access for reporters at the Pentagon and to hold regular on-camera briefings,” said Robert Burns, the association’s president.
At issue is whether Mattis and other Pentagon officials went too far in silencing the voice of the U.S. military in the public sphere—and therefore lost control of the narrative, both in Washington and around the world, some critics say.
Dana White, Mattis’s former chief spokeswoman, said that his longtime experience as a general, particularly his time at U.S. Central Command, shaped his perspective on the release of information. Mattis came into the job with a “warrior mindset” about how America’s enemies can use information to threaten U.S. forces and undermine their mission, she said.
“He was leading the fight against ISIS, which was using information as a weapon,” White said in an interview. “He has been a Marine all of his adult life, and he understands the role information plays in warfare.”
But George Little, another former Pentagon press secretary, pushed back on that logic. Going dark and missing the opportunity to send clear signals to allies and enemies alike “allows other militaries to seize the narrative,” he said.
“The antidote to the weaponization of information is not to go silent,” Little said. “You have to speak back in order to fight back.” If Mattis was trying to avoid politicizing the military, in reality, the information blackout had the opposite effect, he said: “The Pentagon has in many ways politicized itself through silence.”
The Pentagon press corps has long existed outside the political fray. Reporters from dozens of outlets have permanent desks in the building, next-door to the public affairs shop. Unlike the State Department and White House counterparts, members are free to wander the halls, enjoying unusual levels of access to officials.
Many reporters have been on the beat for decades and sometimes know more about the issues than the press officers.
“They really do see their job as explaining to the American people what the department of defense and military are up to,” Colburn said. “They bring a respect to the table in terms of the institution, and they take the work they do with quite a bit of pride.”
But relations soured under Mattis. He sent explicit guidelines to the services to curtail the release of information and chided officers he saw as divulging too much information. Although Mattis stopped by the press bullpen semi-regularly for informal chats, he significantly scaled back the number of reporters invited to travel on his plane. And as on-camera briefings declined, off-camera gaggles went from daily to weekly to once every few weeks at best.
This trend can be partially attributed to Trump, who publicly spars with reporters and curtails access to the White House. But another factor was Mattis himself. He was intent on avoiding politicization of the military, said White, who resigned as Pentagon spokeswoman in January.
“He was adamant about maintaining the apolitical integrity of the military at a time when the country frankly was reeling after an election upset,” White said.
David Lapan, a retired Marine colonel who served for decades as a military public affairs officer as well as press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, agreed that Mattis was extremely sensitive to keeping the Pentagon out of politics. But getting pulled into political discussions was all but unavoidable when the president would regularly talk about “my generals” and tweet about military policy.
For example, Trump in July 2017 announced via Twitter that he planned to reinstate a ban on transgender individuals from serving in the military. Caught off guard, the Pentagon was unable to answer a barrage of basic queries from the press about how the mandate would be carried out and how it would impact troops already serving.
“I wasn’t going to be asked every day about what President Bush or President Obama tweeted,” said Lapan, who among other positions served as spokesman for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and the Marine Corps commandant, as well as serving as director of Pentagon press operations. “I wasn’t going to be pulled into a political discussion based on what was said by the president.”
In the new environment, Mattis and his team saw regular on-camera, on-record engagements as something that would “quickly get them crossways with the president,” Lapan said.
Another former Pentagon spokesperson, who requested anonymity, noted that the military’s engagement with the press began to dry up under former President Barack Obama’s last defense secretary, Ashton Carter. But the former spokesperson acknowledged that Mattis accelerated the deterioration of the relationship by clamping down on the release of basic information and reporter access.
The former spokesperson ascribed the trend to Mattis’s natural disinclination to release information as a former commander, coupled with Trump’s tendency to announce military policy unexpectedly via tweet.
“There was a natural recoil by Secretary Mattis and Pentagon leaders to be less visible out there so as not to attract his ire, so as not to encourage an overreaction,” the former spokesperson said. “I think there was a very deliberate decision to limit public exposure so as to keep the Pentagon out of the president’s target sights.”
White said the reason the press briefings disappeared was that Mattis wanted her to accompany him during his rigorous travel schedule, leaving her with less time physically in the building and to prepare for those types of engagements. White eventually hired Maj. Gen. Burke Whitman to serve as the on-camera spokesman, but Mattis resigned less than two months later, and Whitman withdrew from the job.
White denied rumors that the White House ordered the Pentagon to stop conducting on-camera press briefings.
Now that Mattis has left the building and the Pentagon finally has a new leader, Esper and his public affairs team may have a real chance to mend relations, experts said. It is a positive sign that Esper is making the relationship a priority from the start, Colburn said.
“Anytime there is a change in leadership, there is an opportunity to reset things, regardless of leadership,” he said.
Particularly outside of Washington, if commanders in the field see the highest levels of Pentagon leadership talking to the press more frequently, they will be more likely to engage, Lapan said.
Unlike Mattis, Esper has an extensive background dealing with the Washington political environment—on Capitol Hill, in the think tank world, in the Pentagon, and in the defense industry, experts noted. He also has an existing healthy relationship with the Pentagon press corps, frequently inviting reporters to travel with him and giving interviews in his previous role as secretary of the army. On his first international trip as secretary of defense, he invited 12 reporters, including Foreign Policy, to travel with him to Asia.
“I’ve known Esper a long time, I know that he is very adept at the need to ensure a healthy and transparent relationship with the press as a conduit to the American people,” White said.
Esper is different from Mattis in another, perhaps more significant way—he has a lower profile. Mattis had an almost cultlike following in the military and is well known for his inflammatory remarks. One “Mattisism”—“be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet”—was even referenced in the popular first-person shooter video game Team Fortress 2.
Mattis’s reputation made him an easy target for Trump. Some speculate the president was sensitive to the fact that the former general was more popular and respected than he was. After the journalist Bob Woodward published a book alleging that Mattis once told colleagues the president acted like a “fifth or sixth grader,” Trump lashed out by telling CBS’s 60 Minutes that Mattis was “sort of a Democrat” and suggesting he might resign.
By contrast, Esper, perhaps to his benefit, is relatively unknown.
“Mark Esper will never be viewed as a rival of the president of the United States,” said one former senior Pentagon official. “There will never be that kind of tension between Esper and Trump, ever.”
Despite signs of progress, some observers cautioned that the political environment has not changed—in fact, in some ways it is even more fraught.
“I’m pessimistic that it will return to regular order under this administration,” said Little, the former Pentagon spokesman.
Why? “In a word: fear.”
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman