Not that Trump's decision Friday to officially drop joint military exercises between the US and South Korea didn't already prove this beyond a doubt or anything, but yes, Defense Secretary James Mattis is clearly getting the Rex Tillerson treatment these days as his Pentagon tenure appears to be increasingly in trouble.
Defense Secretary James Mattis learned in May from a colleague that President Donald Trump had made the decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal, and scrambled to get his boss on the phone before a formal announcement was made. It wouldn't be the last time he was caught off guard by a presidential announcement.
A month later, Mattis was informed that Trump had ordered a pause in U.S. military exercises with South Korea only after the president had already promised the concession to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Last week, Trump again blindsided and overruled his defense secretary by publicly directing the Pentagon to create a sixth military branch overseeing operations in space.
The way these recent presidential decisions on major national security issues have played out, as detailed by current and former White House and defense officials, underscores a significant change in Mattis's role in recent months. The president is relying less and less on the advice of one of the longest-serving members of his cabinet, the officials said.
"They don't really see eye to eye," said a former senior White House official who has closely observed the relationship.
It's a stark contrast to Trump's early enthusiasm for the retired four-star Marine general he proudly referred to as "Mad Dog." And while the two men had disagreements from the start — on the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects, for instance — Trump still kept Mattis in the loop on major decisions and heeded his counsel.
"He's never been one of the go-tos in the gang that's very close to the president," a senior White House official said. "But the president has a lot of respect for him."
In recent months, however, the president has cooled on Mattis, in part because he's come to believe his defense secretary looks down on him and slow-walks his policy directives, according to current and former administration officials.
The dynamic was exacerbated with Trump's announcement in March that he had chosen John Bolton as national security adviser, a move Mattis opposed, and Mike Pompeo's confirmation as secretary of state soon after.
The president is now more inclined to rely on his own instincts or the advice of Pompeo and Bolton, three people familiar with the matter said.
There's no question now that Bolton and Pompeo are running our military policy on the Middle East, North Korea, Iran, China, Russia and Europe. Whether or not he'll make enough noise on the way out the door may play a role, but at this point there's no reason to believe that Mattis has any clout anymore. This is exactly what happened to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Also, compare Mattis, who is repeatedly overruled and marginalized by Trump, to EPA head Scott Pruitt, who by all rights should have been fired months ago for his obvious corruption and incompetence, but he's still riding high as Trump loves the guy because he's doing what Trump wants.
Maybe Mattis will survive the way Trump's Chief of Staff John Kelly has, by keeping his mouth shut and rolling over. But Kelly, Mattis and Tillerson were supposedly the "adults in the room" keeping Trump's authoritarian impulses in check. If anything, Trump is riding roughshod over them, and they are doing nothing while Trump calls for the end of due process.
Tillerson is gone, replaced by the totally subservient Pompeo. Kelly has rolled over completely, not that he wasn't a seething racist to begin with like his boss. Now we learn Mattis has effectively been replaced by John Bolton's mustache. The "moderating influences" on Trump by the professionals are completely gone.
Now we have Trump unleashed upon the world.