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Mattis-Trump relationship put to the test by Woodward book

Lawmakers and national security experts are questioning whether Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisRejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs The GOP senators likely to vote for Trump's conviction MORE can maintain a strong relationship with President TrumpDonald TrumpNoem touts South Dakota coronavirus response, knocks lockdowns in CPAC speech On The Trail: Cuomo and Newsom — a story of two embattled governors McCarthy: 'I would bet my house' GOP takes back lower chamber in 2022 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.

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“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 DurbinDick DurbinPartisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Murkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo Democrats ask FBI for plans to address domestic extremism following Capitol attack 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 GallegoProgressives fume over Senate setbacks More than 0K raised for Ohio mom arrested for leaving kids alone at motel to work GoFundMe set up for mother arrested after leaving kids alone while at work 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 PompeoMike PompeoUS intel: Saudi crown prince approved Khashoggi killing Golden statue of Trump at CPAC ridiculed online Five things to watch at CPAC 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.”