Former defense secretary Jim Mattis recently shared some thoughts with Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, including an account of the compelling final scene of his time in the administration. (“’You’re going to have to get the next secretary of defense to lose to ISIS. I’m not going to do it.’ He handed Trump his resignation letter, a letter that would soon become one of the most famous documents of the Trump presidency thus far.”)
Goldberg relays: “[Mattis’] aides and friends say he found the president to be of limited cognitive ability, and of generally dubious character.” From Mattis, we get not much beyond his resignation letter and general lessons on leadership.
Mattis explained to Goldberg his understanding of devoir de réserve:
“The duty of silence. If you leave an administration, you owe some silence. When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country. They still have the responsibility of protecting this great big experiment of ours. I know the malevolence some people feel for this country, and we have to give the people who are protecting us some time to carry out their duties without me adding my criticism to the cacophony that is right now so poisonous.”
Some Americans and many pundits will see his refusal to go beyond oblique criticism of President Donald Trump as an abdication of his duty to warn the country, perhaps stemming from a misplaced loyalty that conflates the military chain of command with civilian service. (“You don’t endanger the country by attacking the elected commander in chief,” he told Goldberg.) Others will say, as they did with another tight-lipped, straight-shooter, former special counsel Robert Mueller, that you cannot get a man so determined to remain outside politics to act in a political fashion.
There are a few points worth considering here.
First, Mattis says his duty of silence doesn’t last forever. We don’t know whether he has a set timetable in mind (say, give Trump a year) or whether events (e.g., deployment of troops, a diplomatic crisis) may provoke him to speak up. I’d suggest, however, that if he plans on speaking up before the 2020 election, he should not wait too long or until a crisis is upon us. The public and our political system need time to come to terms with new facts, especially ones with huge political consequences.
Second, it’s not clear that anything Mattis would say would make a difference. Trump and his cultists would dismiss anything Mattis says, and the rest know Trump is unfit. It’s not like we haven’t witnessed Trump’s manic conduct, brazen ignorance of facts, vindictiveness and lack of empathy.
Mattis knows our constitutional system as well as anyone and therefore understands that absent a personality and character transformation, Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s Cabinet and his Senate allies aren’t going to oust him by either the 25th Amendment or impeachment.
Third, those frustrated with Mattis and/or Mueller are aiming their fire in the wrong direction. Democrats, Republicans and independents need to challenge their fellow citizens who are still inclined to vote for Trump. Candidates for office, elected officials and other public figures have no shortage of evidence that would highlight his unfitness. And we have no shortage of articulate and creative men and women to communicate in whatever medium they see fit. The problem is that a good chunk of the electorate is beyond persuasion. The solution then lies with the rest of the citizenry, which must rouse itself to vote Trump out. Mattis isn’t in charge of the get-out-the-vote operation for 2020; that’s up to the Democrats and all Americans.
We have no deus ex machina — not Mattis, not Mueller, not the 25th Amendment and not impeachment. We have “only” our democracy. If we cannot collectively figure out how to motivate people to vote Trump out, we might have reached the point at which we are incapable of rational self-governance. I don’t think we are there yet. In the meantime, we should stop pestering Mattis to turn over the silver bullet he does not have.