Mattis-Trump relationship put to the test by Woodward book

Lawmakers and national security experts are questioning whether Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico Trump needs a national security adviser who 'speaks softly' US could deploy 150 troops to Syria: report MORE can maintain a strong relationship with President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE in the wake of reports that the White House has looked for a successor to the Pentagon chief, and reporting in Bob Woodward's book of Mattis's frustrations with the president.

Mattis quickly put out a statement this past week describing Woodward's book as fiction and denying insults attributed to him regarding Trump. The president, for his part, publicly thanked Mattis for the “nicest quote about me,” signaling a deep appreciation for the Defense secretary's words.

“I did appreciate his statement,” Trump said. “He didn't have to write that statement. But I did appreciate it.”

But the public comments have not quelled concerns about possible friction between the two men.

“I’m worried every day, even before the book,” said Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinKavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Democrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' Pressley on Kavanaugh impeachment: 'Deeply disturbing' that a justice 'could have this many allegations' MORE (D-Ill.), when asked if he was concerned Woodward’s new book may damage Mattis’s standing with Trump.

Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense, said he’s counting on Mattis to stay in his role.

“He’s a critical part, not only of our national defense but the stability of our country,” Durbin said.

Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, said he hopes Trump will either believe Mattis’s denials or interpret Woodward’s quotes of him in a more lighthearted way.

“But of course it takes a lot of hopefulness to offer that perspective because Trump’s not known for forgiveness or for lightheartedness or for his sense of humor,” O’Hanlon said. “And he is known for bearing a grudge, so I think you have to be worried at some level.”

The forthcoming book by Watergate journalist Woodward — "Fear: Trump in the White House” — reportedly includes sections that describe several exchanges between Mattis and Trump. In one scene, Mattis is said to describe the president as having the understanding of “a fifth- or sixth-grader” when it comes to the Korean Peninsula.

Woodward also wrote that in April 2017, following a chemical attack on civilians in Syria, Trump urged Mattis that the U.S. should “f---ing kill” Syrian President Bashar Assad. Mattis reportedly went along with the president’s demands during the phone call, but immediately after hanging up told aides that they would take a “much more measured” approach. 

Trump’s overall approach to governing, and how Mattis fits into that equation, has some lawmakers worried about how the president will move forward with his Defense secretary.

“I always worry that the president’s not getting solid professional advice that put his worst tendencies in check,” said House Armed Services member Ruben GallegoRuben Gallego2020 Democrats raise alarm about China's intellectual property theft Harris picks up endorsement from influential lawmaker as support slips Democratic lawmaker: Russia, China benefitting from continued US troop presence in Afghanistan MORE (D-Ariz.). “Whether it’s Mattis or whether it’s any other portion of his national security apparatus, I want to make sure that they have the best ability to give the president the best advice.”

The former Marine Corps general pushed back after news reports on the book’s excerpts, saying in a statement that “the contemptuous words about the President attributed to me in Woodward's book were never uttered by me or in my presence.”

Mattis has long downplayed major and surprising White House orders for the Pentagon, like Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military, the deployment of National Guard troops along the southern border and Trump’s promise to temporarily halt military drills on the Korean Peninsula.

The defense secretary also has routinely walked back and recalibrated Trump’s controversial directives and statements on everything from NATO and Russia to using defense dollars for a border wall and pulling troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

Some military experts don’t see Woodward’s book shaking Trump’s confidence in Mattis.

“I don’t get that there’s much stress in the White House over this with Mattis. It’s more like, ‘Well, this is Wednesday,’ ” said James Carafano, a defense policy expert at the Heritage Foundation and member of Trump’s White House transition team.

He pointed to Mattis’s meeting alongside Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump fires back at Graham over Iran criticism Overnight Defense: GOP wary of action on Iran | Pence says US 'locked and loaded' to defend allies | Iran's leader rules out talks with US Republicans wary of US action on Iran MORE this past week in India, where the Pentagon chief “seemed enormously comfortable.”

“Mattis really seemed on top of his game, nobody seemed distracted by the news [of the book],” Carafano said. “I just don’t think that this actually put a strain on the relationship with the White House at all.”

And despite all the hand wringing on both sides of the Potomac, O’Hanlon shared the view that Mattis is unlikely to be fired by Trump as a result of Woodward’s book.

“Even if this does affect [Trump’s] relationship with Mattis, it won’t be a fatal blow,” he said. “The role of Jim Mattis and this government is absolutely crucial and literally matter of war and peace for our nation in some situations.”