One of the masturbatory fantasies of the left is that the US military is a political wing of the Democrats. They believe that the military should oppose Republican presidents and mildly acquiesce to whatever Democrats want. Back in 2005, David Ignatius wrote a column encouraging military officers to “push back” against the directives they received from the Bush administration about Iraq (the technical term for this falls on a spectrum between “insubordination” and “mutiny”). In fairness to the Democrats, this perception has been aided by a stream of retired generals who have endorsed Democrats or, in the case of Wesley Clark, tried to run for president as a Democrat and the reaction of some general officers to veterans groups opposing Obama.
You see this narrative played out in story after story about retired USMC General John Kelly who the media has succeeded in painting as a profoundly disloyal and untrustworthy chief-of-staff by running story after story on how he is fighting Trump behind the scenes. But nowhere has this trend been more obvious than in the way the media has treated Secretary of Defense James Mattis. According to media reports, Mattis has basically decided to ignore Trump and do what he wants. Alternatively, he’s the wise man in the room speaking Truth to idiocy and, gee whiz, just how much longer can he take it. A prime example of this comes from Monday’s New York Times: Mattis Wanted Congressional Approval Before Striking Syria. He Was Overruled.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis urged President Trump to get congressional approval before the United States launched airstrikes against Syria last week, but was overruled by Mr. Trump, who wanted a rapid and dramatic response, military and administration officials said.
Mr. Trump, the officials said, wanted to be seen as backing up a series of bellicose tweets with action, but was warned that an overly aggressive response risked igniting a wider war with Russia.
Friday night’s limited strikes on three targets, which lasted under two minutes, were the compromise.
The debate reflects a divide between Mr. Trump and the defense secretary, who, like no other member of the cabinet, has managed to maintain a cordial relationship with the president even while reining him in.
Even so, Mr. Mattis pushed to get congressional authorization, according to people with knowledge of the internal debate. In several White House meetings last week, he underscored the importance of linking military operations to public support — a view Mr. Mattis has long held.
The story also covers the debate over the extent of the target array to be serviced in the attack. I posted on that debate the day after the attack and said that it was clear that Mattis, not Bolton, was in charge on this. I ignored this particular story because I’d covered part of it and because the Congressional request piece didn’t make sense. We slapped Syria last April and Mattis didn’t request Congressional approval. We mauled Russian mercenaries and there was no debate over getting a new authorization to cover future eventualities. Why would this subject come up now? Why would anyone think that a Congress that has not debated use of force and has shown zero appetite for doing so, would ever get around to addressing it in a timely manner…in particular when no one in leadership was demanding that they do so?
The short answer is that this seems to be an exercise in mischief-making.
“Reports that Secretary Mattis urged the president to seek congressional approval before last week's strikes in Syria are categorically false,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders says in statement.
She argues Trump “appropriately ordered the strikes under his constitutional authorities.” https://t.co/WGz9Ca9myc
— Jennifer Jacobs (@JenniferJJacobs) April 18, 2018
Mattis rejects NYT story he wanted congressional authority to strike in Syria: "I have no idea where that story came from. I found nothing in it that I could recall from my own last week’s activities," Mattis tells reporters
— Lucas Tomlinson (@LucasFoxNews) April 18, 2018
Mattis’ spokeswoman was also categorical on this point last night. https://t.co/lIf6dCkMbj
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) April 18, 2018
This is how deeply the instinct is embedded:
— Jordan Schachtel (@JordanSchachtel) April 18, 2018
While this is probably closer to the truth, the target of this was Mattis, not Trump:
Both Pentagon and WH are officially denying the report. So in that sense there’s no argument; but obviously there are people behind the scenes on the WH side who oppose Mattis. https://t.co/uh3LJQsziY
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) April 18, 2018
As I see it, there is a pattern that emerges in response to strong and/or effective officials in the Trump administration. The Washington Post and New York Times and CNN start carrying stories about how the officials are a) leading Trump around by the nose, b) think Trump is an idiot, c) the adults in the room with Trump, or d) they prevent Trump from exercising his notoriously poor judgment. These stories become the narrative of the person’s relationship with Trump and, as a result, Trump begins to distance himself from that person or see the person as a liability. This happened to Kelly. This happened to McMaster. This is happening to Nikki Haley. This is happening to James Mattis. And it is going to continue happening so long as Trump seems to worry about his public image vis-a-vis his staff more than about policy.