WASHINGTON – When their relationship was fresh and new, and President Trump his secretary of defense is still Mad Dog & # 39; – a nickname that Jim Mattis detests – the bright retired Marine General often took a dinner break to eat hamburgers with his boss in the White House residence.
Mattis brought briefing folders, said assistants, to explain the joint "ready to fight tonight" strategy of the army with South Korea, and why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was for a long time considered central to the protection of the United States. . Mr. Mattis used his folky way of ordering the president to order torture against terrorist detainees and persuading him to send thousands of other American troops to Afghanistan – all without affecting the public Twitter chastisement that plagued other national security officials. .
But the burger dinners have stopped. Interviews with more than a dozen White House, congressmen and current and former officers of the Department of Defense in the past six weeks paint a portrait of a President who has been soured by his defense secretary, tired of unfavorable comparisons with Mr. Mattis as the adult in the room and increasingly worried that he is a Democrat in heart and soul.
Almost all officials, as well as confidants of Mr. Mattis, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal tensions – in some cases out of fear of losing their jobs.
In the second year of his presidency, Mr. Trump has largely coordinated his national security staff because he has more self-confidence as the commander-in-chief, the officials said. Faced with what is likely to be a heated election battle as soon as the interim times are over in 2018, the assistant said that Mr. Trump was pondering if he wanted someone who runs the Pentagon, who would be more vocally supportive than Mr. Mattis, who is fiercely protective against the American army against perceptions can be used for political purposes.
Officials at the White House said that Mr. Mattis had opposed a number of requests from Mr. Trump. That included initially slow walking the president's order to ban transgender troops of the army and refusing a request from the White House to stop family members from escorting troops to South Korea. The Pentagon was afraid that North Korea would have seen this as a precursor of war.
In the last four months alone, the President and Chief of Defense have disagreed with NATO's policy, whether it is large-scale military exercises with South Korea and, privately, or Trump's decision to join the United States. withdraw from Iran, must be resumed. nuclear deal has proved effective.
The arrival in the White House earlier this year of Mira Ricardel, a deputy national security adviser with a history of bad blood with Mr. Mattis, coincided with new West Wing allegations that the defense official might be asked to leave after the meantime. to go. .
Mattis himself is getting tired, some assistants said, about the amount of time it took to push back against what is, according to officers of the Ministry of Defense, erratic whims of a capricious president.
The Minister of Defense has made sure that he has not really criticized Mr Trump. Pentagon officials said that Mr. Mattis had leaned backwards to appear loyal, only to be contradicted by positions the president later dismissed. How long can Mr. Mattis continue to play the faithful marine, has become an open question in the Pentagon's E-ring, home to the senior officials of the Department of Defense.
The fate of Mr. Mattis is important because he is widely viewed – by foreign allies and opponents, but also by the traditional national security organization in the United States – as the government official who stands between a mercenary president and a global outcry.
"Secretary Mattis is probably one of the most qualified people to keep that job," said Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the best Democrat of the Senate Conflict Committee, in an interview. His departure from the Pentagon, said Mr. Reed, "would primarily cause a disturbance in an area where there is competence and continuity."
But that same sentiment is part of a story that the president has come across.
The one-two last week of the Bob Woodward book that Mattis, who is the intellect of Mr. Trump compares with that of a fifth or sixth grader, combined with the New York Times Op-Ed by an unnamed officer of the higher administration who criticized the president, Mr. Trump prompted him to have only like-minded loyalists around him. (Mattis denied having compared his boss with a student at a primary school and said he did not write the Op-Ed.)
Mr. Trump, said two assistants, wants Mr. Mattis to be more like State Secretary Mike Pompeo, a political supporter of the president. During a televised session of 21 June, held on television, held as migrant children were separated from their parents on the southwestern border, Mr. Mattis and Mr. Pompeo were studying contrasts: on the left of the president was the secretary of defense with stone faces; on his right the state secretary grinned at Mr. Trump's jokes.
Getting Mr Mattis to abandon the apolitical attitude he has given throughout his life will be almost impossible, his friends and assistants said.
Mattis avoided the spotlight during his tenure because he is afraid, said deputies, about placing questions on the spot that will reveal differences with his boss. He brought down several requests from the White House to continue with "Fox & Friends" to praise the president's agenda. And he has only appeared a handful of times for reporters on stage in the Pentagon press room and gave remarkably few on-record-one-to-one interviews with news media – one of which has a reporter for a newspaper in high school in Washington state, which had obtained Mattis's cell phone number.
"Secretary Mattis lives according to a code that is part of his DNA," said Capt. Jeff Davis, who retired to the Navy last month after serving as a spokesman for Mattis since the beginning of the Trump government. "He is genetically unable to lie and genetically unable to be unfaithful."
That means that the defense officer's only refuge is to stay silent, says Mattis's assistants. Although he does not want the public to disagree with his boss, he also does not feel at ease with the glorifying Mr. Trump.
But cracks are displayed.
In April, John R. Bolton became National Security Adviser to the White House, replacing Army Lt. Gene. HR McMaster, who was long regarded as a subordinate of Mr. Mattis because of his rank as a three-star general compared to the retired Navy general four stars. Mr. Bolton is much more aggressive than Mattis or General McMaster; government officials said his deputy, mrs. Ricardel, the Pentagon-chief hates, a feeling that Mr. Mattis thinks he comes back completely.
Mrs. Ricardel, a former Boeing manager who worked at the Pentagon during the board of George W. Bush, is known to be as combative as Mr. Bolton.
As the Trump transitional officer who was responsible for the appointment of the Pentagon, mrs. Ricardel opposed Mr. Mattis to hire Anne Patterson as secretary of defense for policy, one of the highest political jobs in the department. Mrs. Patterson was a career diplomat serving as an ambassador to President Bush, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, but officials from the administration said that Ms. Ricardel suspected that Mattis was trying to charge the Pentagon with Democrats and former supporters of Hillary Clinton's president. 2016 campaign.
(Mattis also tried, unsuccessfully, to hire Michèle A. Flournoy, a defense unit under secretary in the Obama administration, as his deputy. "He needed a deputy sheriff who did not struggle every day to ask if they could participate. some of the policies that are likely to take shape, "said Mrs Flournoy conference organized by Politico.)
After a brief period at the trade department, Ms. Ricardel moved to the White House as deputy to Mr. Bolton. Since her arrival, the friction between the White House and the Pentagon has increased – along with speculation from West Wing assistants who are dropping the star of Mattis.
For example, Mattis recently resisted attempts by the White House to closely monitor military operations by demanding details of US troops involved in specific attacks in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
An American official said the White House had circumvented the Pentagon by receiving classified briefings of upcoming operations directly from the Special Operations Task Force, to the frustration of Mr. Mattis.
That seems like a small and insular example of bureaucratic play. But the officials of the administration said that it illustrates the tensions between Mr. Mattis and Mr. Trump: either the Minister of Defense can not address the president, or he and Mr. Trump have refused to support him.
Asked about differences of opinion between the National Security Council and the Pentagon, Garrett Marquis, the Council's spokesman, said in an e-mail that "Ambassador Bolton coordinates and works closely with all National Security Agencies to provide President National Security Options and Guidance."
Unlike General McMaster, Mr. Bolton recently began attending weekly meetings between Mr. Mattis and Mr. Pompeo. Pentagon officials complain that White House interference has returned to the level of Susan E. Rice, who, as Obama's national security adviser, was accused of micromanaging every departmental action.
Mattis was repeatedly blinded by his boss this summer.
In June, Mr. Trump instructed Mr. Mattis to set up a Space Force on the the defense department's allegations that such a move would depress an already cumbersome bureaucracy.
In July, the president blew up a NATO summit on which Mattis and other national security officials had worked for months. The head of the Pentagon and others kept the final agreement only because they protected it from the president and ambassadors to finish it before Mr. Trump arrived in Brussels.
In August, the president interrupted. Mattis after a press conference in the Pentagon in which the Secretary of Defense suggested that the US military would resume war games on the Korean peninsula. The exercises were suspended – against Mr Mattis' advice – after Mr Trump had met with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore. "There is currently no reason to spend large amounts on joint war competitions between the US and South Korea," the president twittered.
Meanwhile, Mr. Mattis has begun questioning the effectiveness of Mr Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal – an action that, once again, was against his advice. Mattis has told assistants that he must see some difference in Iran's behavior since Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement between the world powers and Tehran.
Mr. Mattis was dismissed in his position as head of the Central Command of the United States in 2013 because he was considered a too big hacker of Iran's policy during the Obama administration. But now, on the board of Trump, Mr. Mattis makes his arguments about Iran from the left of Mr. Bolton, Mrs. Ricardel, and the president himself.
For Mr. Trump would bring the political defense of his popular defense secretary with him. Mattis is honored by the men and women of the US Army. Most of the rest of his fans are people that Mr. Trump does not care about: Democrats, established republicans and American allies.
But moderate republicans – which Mr. Trump will need in 2020 – also seem to trust Mr. Mattis, and firing him can hurt the president with that key group.
Mr. Trump is openly present to his defense secretary. "He will stay there," the president said to reporters last week when asked about Mr. Mattis's remarks in Mr. Woodward. "We are very happy with him, we have victories that people do not even know about. & # 39;
As far as Mr. Mattis is concerned, "there is no daylight between the secretary and the president when it comes to the unwavering support of our army," said Dana W. White, the press secretary of the Pentagon. "It is up to the president of the United States to decide what he wants to do."
Eric Schmitt, Mark Landler and Julian Barnes contributed to reporting.