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Book: Syria disagreement with Trump used as a pretext for Mattis’ departure as DOD chief

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 13, 2017, during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: October 23, 2019

Increasingly embattled and isolated, former defense secretary Jim Mattis used a December disagreement with President Donald Trump over a military withdrawal from Syria as a “pretext to announce a decision that he had made months before to cut his losses and move on,” according to a new book by a retired military officer who worked on Mattis’ staff.

“Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon With Secretary Mattis,” details rising tensions between Mattis and the president, members of Congress, and the members of the press corps who covered him as his allies in the Trump administration were dismissed and he allegedly was “iced out” by the White House. It also describes Mattis’ attempts to head off directives from the president that could thrust the military further into politics and his blocking decisions that he saw as illegal.

Mattis said wryly that he’d “rather swallow acid” than see the multimillion-dollar military parade that Trump wanted, the book said. It also alleged that Trump sought to “screw” Amazon — whose founder, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post — by locking the company out of bidding for the Pentagon’s $10 billion cloud networking contract known as JEDI, and that the secretary demurred.

“We’re not going to do that,” Mattis told senior Pentagon officials, according to the book. “This will be done by the book, both legally and ethically.”

Mattis and the White House did not respond to requests for comment. Other senior officials who worked for Mattis, including his chief of staff, retired Rear Adm. Kevin Sweeney, and his former top military adviser, Adm. Craig Faller, either declined to comment or could not be reached.

“ADM Faller has not read the book, and we will not be commenting on it,” said Army Col. Amanda Azubuike, a spokeswoman for Faller, in an email.

The book’s author is retired Navy Cmdr. Guy Snodgrass, a former fighter pilot who served as a speechwriter and director of communications for Mattis. His writing is likely to be seen by some defense officials and service members as a betrayal of the former defense secretary, who called for secrecy and discretion among his staff.

In August, Snodgrass sued the Defense Department, alleging that the Pentagon was dragging out its standard prepublication process to make sure his work does not include classified material. Snodgrass stated in an affidavit that he reached out to Mattis about the book and that the secretary responded in an email that Snodgrass appeared “to be violating the trust that permitted you as a member of my staff to be in private meetings in my office, where those of us carrying the responsibilities believed that all could speak freely in pre-decisional discussions.”

The department cleared the book for release on Sept. 11, and it is set to be released next week.

The resulting work, a copy of which was obtained by The Post, is promoted as “an insider’s sometimes shocking account” of inner workings at the Pentagon, and follows insider books by several former Trump administration officials who worked at the White House.

Mattis published a book of his own in September, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,” but it only brushed on his time working for Trump and focused instead on lessons learned during his 41-year career as a Marine officer. He has said little that is critical about the president publicly, though he did mock him in a speech this month.

“I earned my spurs on the battlefield,” Mattis said. “Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.”

Snodgrass declined to comment about the book on Tuesday night, citing its release schedule. He wrote on Twitter that he had been at the Pentagon earlier Tuesday and was greeted by an Army colonel who pulled him aside and thanked him for “being willing to tell our story.

“I was floored … and grateful,” he tweeted.

Of Mattis’ departure, Snodgrass wrote that the framing of the decision by the Pentagon and some media outlets as a “spur-of-the-moment decision made in a final moment of passion” about Trump’s planned Syria withdrawal “wasn’t quite right.” Mattis’ “outrage over Syria” was real, Snodgrass wrote, but the situation was more complicated.

Snodgrass recalled going to Mattis’ office one day in summer 2018 to coordinate his schedule with Mattis’ and being admonished to keep his voice down. Mattis was meeting with John Kelly, a fellow retired Marine general, who was then Trump’s chief of staff. The meeting wasn’t listed on any schedule and was about departures, Mattis’ scheduler told him. A look at Mattis’ schedule for 2019 showed that he had nothing significant planned.

“It didn’t take long before others around the secretary’s personal staff started to catch on, especially those planning events months into the future,” Snodgrass wrote. “Several approached me in late summer, asking what I knew. I demurred. It wasn’t my story to tell, nor would my telling it have improved morale.”

That story contradicts reassurances last fall that Mattis planned to stay in his job. Even after Trump said last October in a “60 Minutes” interview that “it could be” that Mattis was leaving, Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said that he “is not going anywhere.”

Snodgrass joined Mattis’ staff as an active-duty officer in April 2017, several months after the Trump administration took office. While Snodgrass found Trump’s “ethics and character appalling,” he wrote, he admired Mattis. Still, Snodgrass wrote, he was “aware that working for the secretary of defense would effectively be a political job in the Trump administration.”

The book raised a number of issues that have been reported before, including internal concerns at the Pentagon that Mattis’ staff compromised the American principle of civilian control of the military by relying on too many military officers. Mattis’ penchant for keeping staffs small, coupled with the Pentagon’s struggle to find political appointees and to get them confirmed, also left numerous staff members working 14-hour days before burning out and resigning.

In March 2018, Mattis lost administration allies when Trump fired the-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the president’s national security adviser. While Mattis’ relationship with McMaster had been “strained at best” because of the general’s “forceful” personality and tendency to lecture people, Snodgrass wrote, the departures left Mattis more exposed.

The former speechwriter also described unreported scenes inside a Pentagon meeting with Trump on Jan. 18, 2018, that have received some media coverage. When the Afghanistan war came up, Snodgrass recalled, Trump unloaded.

“Seriously, who gives a sh — about Afghanistan?” Trump said, according to the book. “So far we’re in for $7 trillion, fellas … $7 trillion including Iraq. Worst decision ever and we’re stuck with it. We could just get out of 90 percent of our commitments and countries, and just bring it all home.”

Trump added a few moments later that the U.S. should follow China’s policy and “just go into Afghanistan and take out all that wealth,” an apparent reference to China investing in mining.

Trump then raised the prospect of having a military parade again, and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it would cost a lot and would have bad optics because it would resemble events held by Russia, North Korea and other authoritarian regimes, the book said.

“But … think about the spirit!” Trump responded, according to the book.

As the relationship between Mattis and Trump frayed, Snodgrass wrote, so did morale on Mattis’ staff. Sweeney, the chief of staff, and Faller, the senior officer on Mattis’ staff, would “berate” people when Mattis had a “sour” mood, the book said.

Snodgrass wrote that he also watched Mattis’ relationship with the press begin to falter, especially after a trusted senior adviser, Sally Donnelly, left after a year. While the Pentagon said that she wanted to return to the private sector, Sweeney, Faller and White had started a “whispering campaign” against her, alleging without sharing evidence that she might be leaking information to the press, Snodgrass alleged.

Donnelly and White both declined to comment.

Snodgrass wrote that White, the Pentagon spokeswoman, was “loathed by the press” and used assignments traveling with Mattis as incentive for journalists not to write negative stories.

“’Never forget, Bus. The press is the enemy,” Snodgrass recalled White saying, using his pilot call sign. “They are not your friend.’”

Snodgrass wrote that he disagrees with that perspective and thinks the press could have been tougher on Mattis.

The book also described Snodgrass’ personal falling-out with Sweeney and Faller after he declined to take a Navy assignment that would have put him in line someday to command an aircraft carrier. After years of travel, Snodgrass wrote, he wanted to command a carrier air wing rather than take another assignment that would require him to be away from his family a lot.

After he left the Navy, Snodgrass stayed on Mattis’ staff as a civilian for several months and then was offered another job in the Pentagon outside of Mattis’ inner circle. It was blocked by Sweeney, Snodgrass alleged. He appealed to Mattis directly in an email for support, he wrote, but received none and resigned instead.

But Snodgrass praised Mattis’ overall efforts.

“Mattis provided a valuable service to the nation, our international allies and partners, and the members of the department he led,” Snodgrass wrote. “Just as important, Mattis effectively translated the president’s desires into ethical, well-executed outcomes.”

Cmdr. Guy M. Snodgrass is shown in this Defense Department photograph in Japan in 2016.
MATTHEW C. DUNCKER/U.S. NAVY

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