Mattis had pushed back against Trump’s likely decision to abandon the Iran deal for months, but after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster left the administration earlier this year, he stopped objecting so vocally, according to an official familiar with the meeting.
Mattis had benefited from serving with Tillerson and McMaster, because Trump didn’t like either of them, officials said. Whenever Tillerson and Mattis both opposed one of Trump’s ideas, as they often did, Trump would focus his anger on Tillerson, officials said, adding that the president did the same with McMaster.
Now Mattis is working alongside a secretary of state Trump very much likes and a national security adviser who is more closely aligned with his own views, such as his position on Iran.
In perhaps the most consequential national security initiative Trump has undertaken — direct talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — Mattis appears to be on the sidelines. He’s had little role before, during and after Trump’s Singapore summit with Kim, despite the major U.S. military presence in South Korea, officials said.
A defense official said that ahead of the summit Trump and Mattis spoke about an array of topics that could come up, and canceling the joint military exercises with South Korea was not among them. Mattis was not expecting Trump’s announcement on June 12 that the exercises would be cancelled, the official said, and as a result had not notified the two commands most directly involved: U.S. Forces Korea and the South Korean military.
In fact, Secretary Mattis found out from one of his assistant secretaries, Randy Schriver, early Tuesday morning after the summit had concluded, according to a former senior White House official.
Pentagon spokesperson Dana White, however, insisted “there were no surprises.”
A senior White House official did not dispute that Mattis found out after the fact, but said, “He knew that it could have been offered. The president was in the room with the leader of North Korea and made the decision.”
The joint exercises with South Korea had been seen by top military officials like Mattis as critical to readiness and interoperability in the region. Yet the Pentagon released a statement this week suspending the exercises and referring to them as “war games,” a phrase that the U.S. military has traditionally avoided in describing the exercises but is used by North Korea and China.
Trump’s June 18 directive to create what he described as a “space force” branch of the military directly contradicted his defense secretary’s advice. In October, Mattis wrote a letter to Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, saying “I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting efforts.”
Trump didn’t even mention Mattis during his announcement of the space force on June 18. Instead he singled out Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was present at the event, saying “if you would carry that assignment out, I would be very greatly honored.”
Afterward, Mattis personally added a line in the statement from the Pentagon that pointedly noted the creation of such a force “has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy,” according to a defense official.
The current and former officials said Trump has become tired of what he views as Mattis ignoring or slow-rolling his policy decisions.
Trump blamed Mattis for the bumpy rollout of his changes to the military’s transgender policy, said two former administration officials.
A senior defense official said Mattis slow-rolled Trump on the transgender issue early in the administration, though another official said he was simply overseeing a deliberate process that took time.
In spring 2017 Trump asked Mattis to change the Obama-era policy that allowed transgender individuals to serve openly in the military. Trump asked Mattis about it for “a few weeks or maybe even a couple months,” but Mattis did not respond with action.
Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, chair of the Freedom Caucus, and White House aide Marc Short were among those who told the president Mattis was dragging his feet, said one former official. Eventually Trump tweeted about the change in transgender policy in July, forcing Mattis’s hand.
The friction escalated in January when Trump ordered Mattis to end the practice of allowing the family members of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to accompany them during their deployments. But Mattis, with the assistance of Chief of Staff John Kelly, put off implementing the directive, say one defense official and one former administration official, angering Trump.
Trump repeatedly said he wanted to sign an order changing the policy on military dependents in South Korea, but Mattis and other officials, including Kelly, tried to stall him, according to three former officials. “It was kind of like a game of tag. There were plenty of other people, in addition to Mattis, who slow-walked that,” the former official said. The order was never implemented.
“He knows that he told them to do it and they didn’t do it,” another former senior White House official said.
This official said taken individually each of these things was a “low-grade annoyance” for Trump. “But cumulatively they’ve begun to add up,” the official said.