LONDON – And then there was one.
Since Donald Trump assumed office almost two years ago, U.S. allies in Europe, Asia and beyond have counted on a number of so-called adults in the room to constrain an unpredictable president. With the imminent departure of White House chief of staff John Kelly, only Defense Secretary Jim Mattis remains.
As Trump assembled his first Cabinet, allies took comfort that the group — including retired or serving generals — would help preserve the fundamentals of U.S. foreign and economic policy that have largely endured for decades. The expectation was they would guide, and even restrain, the new commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military.
Attrition has been high. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by tweet in March. Chief economic adviser, former Goldman Sachs Chief Operating Officer Gary Cohn announced he was resigning the same month, while Marine Corps Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said he was leaving as national security adviser. And now Trump has announced Kelly, a retired Marine general, will leave later this month.
Mattis, the warrior intellectual in charge of the Pentagon, has worked to get fellow NATO members and Pacific allies to watch what the U.S. does, not what it tweets. Were he to go, too, at a time of escalating trade tensions and frictions between the U.S. and its partners on everything from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to climate change, those most reliant on U.S. support would be shaken.
“His departure definitely wouldn’t be a positive message for us,” said retired Gen. Ants Laaneots, who commanded the armed forces of Estonia, one of NATO’s three small Baltic state members, from 2006 to 2011. Mattis, he said, “knows what is happening here and knows there is a Russian threat.”
There’s no immediate indication the defense secretary’s job is in danger. Still, whether his days are numbered is among the big questions doing the rounds at NATO’s shiny-new Brussels headquarters, according to two alliance officials, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. They described Mattis as one of the last remaining Atlanticists in the Trump administration, and the main interlocutor for European allies.
Nicknamed “Mad Dog,” Mattis is credited within NATO for quietly ensuring that U.S. funding for beefed up defenses in Europe’s east increased significantly during the Trump administration, despite the president’s evident coolness toward the alliance and desire — at least some of the time — to befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mattis was instrumental, too, in persuading Trump to increase the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, rather than completely withdraw, and was among those who pressed for restraint on North Korea at a time rhetoric on both sides appeared to be escalating toward conflict over the regime’s nuclear weapons program.
“No one doubts it was the Pentagon driving this, rather than the White House,” said Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, referring to the U.S. budget increases to create a stronger deterrent to any potential Russian attacks.
“We don’t know who would replace him, of course, and one would hope it would be someone on the same lines,” said Bildt. “But whether they would carry the same weight and authority as Mattis is another question.”
Still, faith in the adults has often proved misplaced, with Trump difficult to divert from his policies, many of which helped get him elected. Despite opposition from some of his initial Cabinet, the president pulled out of the Iran deal, the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. He also launched a trade war with China.
Tillerson was confirmed by the Senate in part due to his support for the TPP and opposition to a ban on Muslim immigration that Trump had floated during his campaign. Once at State, he publicly opposed Trump’s plans to withdraw from the Iran deal, plus his policies on Russia and North Korea.
There was no love lost. Tillerson last week described the president as “undisciplined” and unwilling to read. Trump fired back in a tweet that the former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive was “dumb as a rock” and “lazy as hell.”
McMaster, too, clashed with Trump over Iran. Both men were replaced by Iran hawks — Tillerson by Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director, and McMaster by John Bolton. Before his appointment, Bolton had also published an opinion piece in favor of preemptive military strikes against North Korea.
Cohn announced his intent to resign after losing a fight to prevent Trump’s imposition of punitive tariffs on long-term U.S. allies for imported steel and aluminum. According to a book by former Watergate reporter Bob Woodward, he also once stole a letter from Trump’s desk that, if signed, would have canceled a trade agreement with South Korea.
“We see responsible voices in the administration leaving, and we only see hardliners replacing them,” said one European official, adding it was driving his country to become less dependent on the U.S.
France has a close relationship with Mattis due to the deep operational ties between the U.S. and French militaries, which work together in the Sahel region of Africa, as well as in Iraq and Syria, said two senior French officials. Paris, which doesn’t perceive a military threat from Russia, would be less concerned than some smaller allies if Mattis were to go, as any successor would want to maintain those ties. The loss of Kelly, the gatekeeper to the Oval Office, could be more destabilizing, the officials said.
Kelly was widely seen as a disciplinarian. In a statement on Saturday, House Speaker Paul Ryan described him as “a force for order, clarity and good sense.” Nick Ayers, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, won’t be taking over from Kelly, a White House official said on Sunday, as Ayers and Trump weren’t able to come to terms on an agreement for Ayers to stay in the job for two years.
Mattis may have survived by keeping a low profile. He doesn’t work in close proximity to the White House, and rarely gives press conferences or interviews. A frequent traveler, he’s made an art of subtly reassuring allied security establishments, without slighting Trump.
At the last Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a conference attended by defense ministers from around the world, Mattis fielded the inevitable Trump question: “How are you bearing up?” Amid laughter, he acknowledged simply that the U.S. lately had had “some unusual approaches.” He then assured them that U.S. values hadn’t changed.
The need for reassurance is evident in the way other ministers line up for bilateral meetings with Mattis at these events, according to John Chipman, who as director general of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies organizes the Shangri-La Dialogue. He also runs a yearly conference in Bahrain, bringing the Pentagon chief together with Middle East counterparts.
Previously, “the U.S. secretary of defense would arrive on a Friday, give a speech Saturday morning and depart for another destination soon after,” said Chipman. Mattis, by contrast, stays the weekend and spends time with his counterparts, undertaking “defense diplomacy.’
There are signs the defense secretary’s sway in the White House is diminishing. In August, he appeared to lose a tussle over whether to form Space Force, a separate branch of the military dedicated to operations in space. He went along with deployment of troops to the Mexican border, a decision Trump took ahead of November’s midterm elections, and which opponents criticized as a politically motivated misuse of the military.
Perhaps for that reason, the shock of a Mattis departure might be less than a year ago.
When Trump first came to power, there was concern he would be unrestrained by responsible advisers, said a senior diplomat from a U.S. ally. But now his country’s officials wouldn’t necessarily be “freaking out” if Mattis left, the person said. The last two years have made them “more optimistic about Trump’s ability to remain stable.”