Tips for Mattis on Navigating Swampland


When then President-elect Donald Trump announced that he had chosen Gen. Jim Mattis to lead the Pentagon, there was a collective sigh of relief across the national security establishment. The thinking went that Mattis knows the U.S. military, has the respect of the uniformed and civilian men and women of the Department of Defense, and has a hard-won reputation for integrity and leadership. With a White House full of outsiders and self-described disruptors, we are looking to Mattis for the military professionalism and reliable pragmatism that his decades of service could provide. We here at Agenda SecDef badly want him to succeed.

And while Mattis’ first trips to Asia and Europe were well-received (much better received than Secretary of State Tillerson’s recent trip to Asia), his team have stumbled thus far in navigating the so-called “swamp.” It’s easy to deride Washington, D.C., but for any member of a presidential cabinet, it’s where the boss lives, and where members of Congress exercise oversight and provide the resources that enable the Pentagon to function. If a cabinet secretary alienates a president (and his staff), or members of Congress (and their staffs), life gets pretty tough. Alienate them both simultaneously, and it becomes impossible to be effective. On this score, I worry the trend lines for Mattis are not positive. While Mattis isn’t responsible for the chaos and unpredictability of the Trump White House, in the end only he will be able to ensure that he can navigate the steep contours it has created, and avoid being entrapped in very poor political terrain.

I was concerned, for instance, to read in Politico that members of Congress and their staffs believe that Mattis is “burning through political capital,” and that they are “running out of patience.” The story essentially describes a well-intentioned defense secretary desiring to fill his ranks with the best folks possible — their politics notwithstanding — and running into a firewall of resistance at the White House and on Capitol Hill. This, coupled with a front office staff that has reportedly been quick to alienate key senators and their staffers, makes for a perilous political situation. My own conversations with Pentagon and Hill staffers convince me that these dynamics are more accurate than not.

Let’s be clear: Mattis has been given terribly limiting boundaries in his search to fill out his team. We have a White House that refuses to seriously consider any of the nearly 200 Republican national security figures who signed the so-called “Never Trump” letters during the GOP primary campaign. The White House even went so far as to reportedly pressure the Pentagon to rescind an offer to long-time Republican and Asia-hand Patrick Cronin, who was slated to take a non-political civil servant position, because he signed one of the letters (full disclosure: Cronin is a colleague of mine at the Center for a New American Security). Mattis has reportedly considered several well-respected Democrats like Rudy DeLeon and Michele Flournoy, for senior positions. These potential appointments have also (predictably) encountered serious resistance and went nowhere.

Compare this kind of behavior to former President Barack Obama, who nominated his main political rival to be his Secretary of State! While the 2008 Democratic primary campaign is now ancient history, it wasn’t exactly a civil and well-mannered affair. Beyond looking magnanimous and truly presidential, Obama’s move helped heal some serious rifts between key factions of the Democratic Party that could have proven problematic in the run-up to the re-election campaign in 2012. Obama also retained Robert Gates, a Republican, as his first Secretary of Defense. Hiring even a half-dozen so-called “Never Trump-ers” into the administration could go a long way toward shoring up rifts in the GOP and bringing in serious conservative talent to help lead the country. Seeking out the best and brightest regardless of their politics is a sign of strength.

But frustrating though these dynamics are, at this point Mattis should consider them firm contours. There are both good ways and bad ways to navigate this treacherous political map. Instead of fighting White House intransigence, Mattis ought to maneuver around it by seeking out those who didn’t sign letters. For example, the House and Senate Armed Services Committee and Appropriations Committee staffs are filled with capable individuals who can and should serve. I understand many are now starting to fill up the slots, but those folks should have been recruited and announced way back in December and January. It would have gone a long way toward building up a reserve of political goodwill.

I was also disappointed to read that Mattis rejected advice to hire senior congressional figures, such as former Rep. Randy Forces and former Sen. Jim Talent, for senior civilian positions. Supposedly this was because he did not want to hire individuals with independent sources of influence on  Capitol Hill. This is hard to understand, given the paramount importance of enlisting Congress as an ally in approving the resources and tradeoffs necessary to improve readiness and modernization strategies. Forbes and Talent are both well-respected defense experts in their own right (and, dare I say, even Democrats like me appreciate their expertise) and could have helped Mattis execute Trump’s defense strategy. Hopefully there is a way for both of them and others with similar reserves of influence on Capitol Hill to serve in the years ahead.

And of course, there are capable individuals in the private sector as well. The announcement of senior positions for individuals like Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan and former Marine and investment banker Richard Spencer is positive step (Note: Boeing is a long-time supporter of CNAS, along with many other donors). A good mix of business leaders within a diverse senior leadership team is something to be sought after. But Mattis needs to be attentive to the fact that he needs Pentagon and Capitol Hill veterans among his senior leadership team to help him navigate through some complex challenges that require a depth of specific experience and a certain kind of skills.

These first few months have been tough, and Mattis has unfortunately been steered into some hazardous political territory. Here at Agenda SecDef we are solutions-oriented, so here are some suggestions:

1. Hire a top-notch Capitol Hill veteran to be your assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs. This ought to be someone with impeccable Republican credentials, but with an ability to work with minority members and staffers as well.

2. Make sure you have people in your front office who know the Hill well. Engage the majority and minority staff directors and their staffs. Don’t needlessly alienate them and make that intent clear to your staff. When you travel around the United States and around the world, seek out opportunities to invite members of Congress to travel with you.

3. Seek out and hire senior leaders with strong relationships on Capitol Hill. Particularly as you think about the service secretaries and under secretaries. Don’t consider that kind of background as a challenge to your influence, but rather as a significant asset. If you select a service secretary from the private sector, consider seeking out Pentagon or Capitol Hill veterans to be their under- and assistant-secretaries.

4. Don’t hire your team linearly, but fill up the deputy assistant secretary and schedule C political billets sooner rather than later. Most of the first round of Obama-era deputy assistant secretary positions were in place months before their assistant secretary bosses were nominated and confirmed by the Senate.

5. Pick your battles with the White House. Go through your personnel slate and pick the dozen or so political positions on which your tenure will depend. Ensure that those folks are well-qualified and have some kind of previous service either at the Pentagon or on Capitol Hill. You are right to resist being forced to hire folks that shouldn’t be anywhere near positions of real responsibility, but pick those battles carefully.

It’s less than 100-days into the Trump administration and there is plenty of time to recover from the kind of tension plaguing not only the Pentagon but every national security agency. Picking a strong team given the unfortunate limitations placed on Secretary Mattis will be tough. But this is a long game — finding ways to navigate the contours of Washington (aka “Swampland”) will help position the Secretary of Defense to be effective during the important challenges ahead.


Shawn Brimley is Executive Vice President at the Center for a New American Security and former Pentagon and White House staffer. He’s lived in Swampland for 13 years.

Image: “Corrupt Legislation” mural at the Library of Congress by Elihu Vedder (1836–1923). Photographed by Carol Highsmith. Public Domain.