Mattis goes on offensive to say he backs Trump – Politico

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President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are pictured. | AP

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, pictured with President Donald Trump earlier this year, said that any fundamental disagreement between the two men is “widely misinterpreted.” | Susan Walsh/AP

The defense secretary’s earlier comments ‘didn’t contradict anything the president said,’ Mattis said.

Updated


Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Thursday pushed back hard against reports that he is out of step with President Donald Trump — particularly on how to deal with North Korea — but also made clear his view that the commander-in-chief can be swayed to change his approach by a strong argument.

Mattis has come under fire recently for a series of pronouncements in which he appeared to disagree with the president, over his North Korea strategy and the ban on transgender service members, which Mattis this week delayed pending a detailed review by a panel of experts using the authority Trump granted him.

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Mattis also was perceived to have criticized the government for dysfunction at its highest levels in leaked video of a talk with U.S. troops in Jordan.

But the former Marine general, who came out of retirement to serve in Trump’s Cabinet, stressed to reporters in an impromptu exchange at the Pentagon that any fundamental disagreement between the two men is “widely misinterpreted.”

“Right now, if I say ‘six’ and the president says ‘half a dozen,’ they’re going to say I disagree with him, so let’s just get over that,” Mattis said. “If that’s the story that some people want to write, then they’ll find the way, they’ll sort out something.”

Still, the retired general acknowledged that he and the president have had their differences.

“First time I met with President Trump, we disagreed on three things in my first 40 minutes with him,” Mattis recalled, citing the relevance of NATO and torture as points of tension, along with another subject that he did not detail. “This is not a man who is immune to being persuaded if he thinks you’ve got an argument.”

The comments provided a rare window into the back and forth between Trump and his Defense chief over some of the most monumental issues facing the Trump administration.

Mattis is widely seen as a moderating force on the president, who by his public comments appears to think very highly of his Defense secretary, whom he has referred to publicly by his military nickname “Mad Dog.”

Lindsay Cohn, a professor at the Naval War College who worked on a book with Mattis, said she thinks his ability to persuade an administration that lacks foreign policy experience is a key reason Mattis accepted the job, becoming only the second retired general to be the civilian head of the military in seven decades — and thus requiring a special congressional waiver.

“That I think is precisely the kind of thing that made Mattis take this job,” she said. “He was the one with experience, with some restraint, the one who understood the costs associated with using the military.”

In the most recent example of a perceived rift between Mattis and the president, Trump seemed to imply Wednesday that diplomacy with North Korea was over, tweeting that “talking is not the answer.”

When Mattis was asked about the tweet hours later, he seemed to disagree, saying that “we are never out of diplomatic solutions.”

But Mattis insisted on Thursday that he is actually in agreement with the president. “I agree with the president, we should not be talking right now to a nation that’s firing missiles over the top of Japan, an ally. So I was — he said, ‘We’re not talking to them.’ I agree 100 percent,” Mattis said. “But we’re not done with diplomacy.”

Some experts nevertheless perceive Mattis and Trump as not completely in lockstep on North Korea,

“That’s a clear disagreement on policy,” Cohn said of what she viewed as opposing statements made by Trump and Mattis regarding the role of diplomacy.

But Peter Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University who served on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, said that he believes Mattis and Trump agree on the policy, but disagree on the way to talk about it.

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