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Timothy L. O’Brien: Jim Mattis leaves the kids in charge at the White House

December 26, 2018

“Nobody’s been able to do what I’ve been able to do… Nobody’s been able to do anything like this. Actually, most people didn’t even try because they knew they didn’t have the ability to do it.”

– President Donald Trump, “60 Minutes” interview, Oct. 15, 2018.

He’s right. Few politicians have the ability to chase away a capable, well-regarded defense secretary, order thousands of U.S. troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, instigate a government shutdown, help foment a deep stock market swoon and share a video of themselves dressed in overalls and singing “Green Acres” to promote a farm bill — all in the same day.

Fewer still choose to go into full whirling dervish mode when they’re already swamped with law enforcement investigations and the opposition party is weeks away from assuming oversight and investigative powers that promise to make each day at the office even more harried and nettlesome.

Then again, as Thursday’s events reinforced, Donald Trump is that most singular of political types: Someone fully capable of burning down everything around him if they feel cornered.

It’s probable that Trump has gone into hyperactive mode precisely because he’s so vulnerable to a string of federal and state investigations into every aspect of his life, including his presidency, business and family.

Two things have always been the main drivers of the president’s actions: Self-preservation and self-aggrandizement.

Robert Mueller’s Justice Department investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign, paired with other probes in New York and elsewhere, certainly have Trump focused on self-preservation. And in an environment where he fears being untethered from his political base, self-aggrandizement kicks in. Hence the lightning round of policy moves, which include using border wall funding as a reason to scuttle talks about keeping the federal government open.

In fairness, Trump campaigned in 2016 on a pledge to build a wall along the southern border. He also said early on that he wanted to bring American troops home from Syria and Afghanistan. But his moves on those issues came on a day already larded with other surprise announcements and erratic behavior. As such, they paint a portrait of a president willing to gamble away national security, sound foreign policy and rational leadership in exchange for being able to shake his rattle on the world stage. That’s certainly something Defense Secretary James Mattis spotted, and which he apparently couldn’t stomach, so he resigned.

“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.” Mattis told Trump in his resignation letter. “We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances. Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

The significance of those parting words was immediate. “There’s going to be an intervention,” a former senior member of the Trump administration told the Washington Post. “Jim Mattis just sent a shot across the bow. He’s the most credible member of the administration by five grades of magnitude. He’s the steady, safe set of hands. And this letter is brutal. He quit because of the madness.”

Mattis’s departure early next year comes after the White House exits of other relative grownups such as Gary Cohn, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly and Rex Tillerson. That leaves the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as the only White House advisers able to withstand the vicissitudes of a president who doesn’t listen to advice and only truly trusts his closest family members, but who lacks the sophistication to recognize that “Javanka” are tragi-comically out of their depth.

Don’t count on adult supervision coming from the president’s Republican enablers in Congress, either. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took to Twitter on Thursday night to bemoan Mattis’s resignation, while pretending that he hasn’t spent years pouring gasoline on the Washington dumpster fire that helped give rise to Trump.

Other Republicans in lesser roles, such as Senator Marco Rubio, keep averting their eyes from the realities of the Trump White House. After Trump announced Mattis’s resignation, Rubio remarked on Twitter that he hoped the decision “was motivated solely by a desire to enjoy a well-deserved retirement.” It took slightly more than 30 minutes for Rubio’s eyes to be opened. After reading the resignation letter, he observed that it was “abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.” However momentarily enlightened he may be, don’t expect Rubio and others in his class to consistently and effectively rein in Trump.

Meanwhile, we must all take comfort in the fact that the president continues to recruit and retain only the “best people” for the White House. “You look at my cabinet members, we have really great cabinet members,” he reassured a group of Bloomberg News reporters in August. “There are those that say this is the best cabinet ever assembled.”

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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