Associates speculate: Did Mattis use the F word — fifth-grader — about Trump?

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent
Secretary of Defense James Mattis. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Former Pentagon officials and others who have spent time around Defense Secretary James Mattis are divided over the plausibility of author Bob Woodward’s claim that Mattis disparaged President Donald Trump.

In his new book about the Trump White House, “Fear,” Woodward quotes an “exasperated” Mattis “telling close associates that the president acted like — and had the understanding of — ‘a fifth- or sixth-grader,’” according to a Sept. 4 article in the Washington Post, where Woodward is an associate editor. Mattis quickly issued a forceful denial. “The contemptuous words about the President attributed to me in Woodward’s book were never uttered by me or in my presence,” he said.

Mattis’s denial resonated with a former official in the office of the secretary of Defense who still works with the Pentagon, who said he “can’t believe” that Mattis would describe the president to others in such insulting terms. “Would he think it? Oh, absolutely,” the former Defense official said. “But I don’t see him saying it. … I can’t see him disparaging him.” Like others interviewed for this story, the former official found the anecdote completely at odds with what he knew of Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general. “His whole career has been about personal discipline,” said the official.

A retired Marine officer who served with Mattis early in his career was similarly mystified, saying it was inconceivable that Mattis would utter the sort of intemperate remark about Trump that Woodward attributes to him. “That’s not his character,” he said.

A deep respect for the principle of civilian control of the military has been a hallmark of Mattis’s career, the retired Marine officer said. “He’s like a guy from the 18th century in his professional beliefs and how he feels about the Constitution,” he said. “I just can’t see him jeopardizing democratic principles with the president.” Indeed, as a retired general, Mattis is probably more sensitive to those issues “because he is a military person in a civilian role,” the retired Marine officer said. “I don’t think he’d do anything to jeopardize that.”

But a retired Army officer who served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the Obama administration and who has interacted with Mattis on multiple occasions said Trump’s erratic personality and ignorance of the basics of national security are so disruptive to Mattis’s worldview that he found Woodward’s account credible. “Trump is so completely off-the-charts freaking mental that the concepts of civil-military relations are out the window,” the retired Army officer said. “Jim Mattis is in a situation [that] we can only imagine how bad and stressful it is.”

The leaks from Woodward’s book have prompted speculation that Mattis will soon depart the Pentagon. Even though no other evidence has emerged to support the anecdote in Woodward’s book, Mattis’s forthright denial of the quote and his sterling reputation might not be enough to save his job, said the former Defense official who still works with the Pentagon. “With this current administration, even the absence of corroborating information can’t clear you, if the president doesn’t feel he can trust you,” the former official said. However, the former official said he had heard nothing to suggest that Mattis was on the way out, voluntarily or otherwise. “He has no personal concerns or thoughts that he’s going to be relieved,” the former official said.

That was a good thing, because “Mattis is the only one” providing a check “on a mercurial president,” the former Defense official said. “You want somebody like Mattis in that position. Do you think [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo would stand up to the president in that situation? I don’t know.”

He was one of several observers to express deep concern about how the chaos surrounding the Trump administration is affecting national security. “For anybody interested in national security, this is all completely off-the-charts uncharted waters,” said the former official. “Nobody’s seen this kind of bullshit before. At a time when we have so many near-term and mid-term threats, this kind of instability is not what we want.” National security experts worry that Russia or China may take the opportunity to act against U.S. interests, because the U.S. government is so divided. “What traditionally has held them back is the United States’ collective will in responding,” the former official said. But at the moment, “the United States is not going to have the collective will to do something in response,” he said. “There’s a real fear, and I’ve heard that from people.”