For the second day in a row, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is making headlines for gently tiptoeing toward criticism of President Trump. Today, it’s in The Atlantic, where the man dubbed “Mad Dog” betrays that nickname by refusing to talk specifically about his problem with Trump, whom he reportedly finds to be of “limited cognitive ability, and of generally dubious character.”
As Jeffrey Goldberg writes, Mattis is “in an unparalleled position” to comment on Trump’s fitness for office. And he clearly has some thoughts on the matter. That was evident in the adapted essay published this week by The Wall Street Journal, which featured Mattis’s critiques of Trump’s “America First” policy and isolationist tendencies.
So why not directly address Trump, Goldberg asked. Mattis responded by referencing the “French concept of devoir de réserve.”
“The duty of silence. If you leave an administration, you owe some silence. When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country. They still have the responsibility of protecting this great big experiment of ours. I know the malevolence some people feel for this country, and we have to give the people who are protecting us some time to carry out their duties without me adding my criticism to the cacophony that is right now so poisonous.”
A commitment to the “duty of silence” is not what one expects from a “Mad Dog,” or from a guy who is about to embark on a book tour for his memoir. But Mattis insists that “attacking” Trump could “weaken him when we’re up against real threats.” And, he says, he wouldn’t want to criticize Trump when “we could be at war on the Korean peninsula, every time they start launching something.”
For now, Mattis says, he owes his silence about the man whose behavior he describes as sometimes “counterproductive and beneath the dignity of the presidency.” But the silence is “not eternal.” At some point, he says, he’ll no longer be worried about weakening Trump and he’ll be willing to speak out. The question is when.