U.S. President Donald Trump has hinted that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — long viewed as a force restraining Trump’s foreign policy excesses — could be one of the next officials to leave his Cabinet.
In an interview that aired Sunday on the CBS program “60 Minutes,” Trump said there are “some people” in his administration that he’s “not thrilled with.”
Asked if Mattis was going to be leaving, Trump replied: “Well, I don’t know. He hasn’t told me that.”
“I have a very good relationship with him. I had lunch with him two days ago. I have a very good relationship with him. It could be that he is. I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth,” Trump said of the retired Marine Corps general, who has worked hard to keep the Defense Department out of politics and has a reputation as being apolitical.
“But Gen. Mattis is a good guy,” he added. “We get along very well. He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave. That’s Washington.”
Queried about Trump’s remarks, a Pentagon spokesman sidestepped a question on the defense chief’s tenure.
“Secretary Mattis is laser-focused on doing his job — ensuring the U.S. military remains the most lethal force on the planet,” spokesman Col. Rob Manning said in an email.
The comments were the first negative remarks Trump has made publicly about Mattis.
Trump, who has displayed a sense of awe toward military figures, had often referred to Mattis by his nickname, “Mad Dog” — a moniker the defense chief intensely dislikes — in speeches. But a report last month by news website Politico said that Trump had recently taken to referring to Mattis by the derisive sobriquet “Moderate Dog.”
A departure by Mattis would likely have important ramifications for U.S. allies — including Japan — as well as adversaries, since many view the defense chief as one of the sole top officials holding Trump’s worst national security impulses in check.
In his position as defense chief, Mattis has at times reportedly been at odds with hawkish administration officials like national security adviser John Bolton, while also diverging from the president on certain issues, including his push for diplomatic measures last summer as the U.S. and North Korea appeared on the brink of war.
Mattis dismissed reports last month that he was planning on leaving in the near future.
Those reports emerged around the time of the publication of a book on the Trump presidency by Watergate journalist Bob Woodward in which he depicted Mattis as comparing Trump’s understanding of the North Korean nuclear issue to that of “a fifth- or sixth-grader.”
Mattis denied making such statements.
Citing more than a dozen White House, congressional and current and former Defense Department officials, The New York Times reported last month that Trump has soured on his defense chief, weary of unfavorable comparisons to Mattis as the adult in the room, and was increasingly concerned that he is a Democrat at heart.