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The Merciful End of the “Adults in the Room” Fantasy

Jim Mattis was supposed to restrain Trump. He failed.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s decision to resign over foreign policy disagreements with President Trump has instilled panic across the political spectrum. “The departure of Mattis—the last ‘grown-up in the room’—is sure to set off tremors of anxiety” among America’s allies, wrote Slate’s Fred Kaplan. In The Daily Beast, Republican political consultant Rick Wilson described Mattis’s exit as “traumatic,” writing that he “was a talisman for the Washington and international foreign-policy communities, a point of smarts and stability, a ground-wire to short out Trump’s capricious impulses before they could damage America’s interests and values.” Even Mitch McConnell seemed rattled, sending out an uncharacteristically blunt statement.

Mattis was viewed by Trump’s critics and allies alike as an essential guardrail, someone who could restrain Trump’s worst instincts and advocate for the national interest. Mattis, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former national security adviser H. R. McMaster, former economic adviser Gary Cohn, departing chief-of-staff John Kelly, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, was a member of what Axios dubbed the “Committee to Save America”—the group who viewed “their successes mostly in terms of bad decisions prevented, rather than accomplishments chalked up.” But, as the last two years have shown, having an “adult in the room” has rarely made much of a difference.

Mattis endeared himself to Trump for two primary reasons. The first was that his nickname—“Mad Dog”—led Trump to believe that he was bloodthirsty and reckless. The second was his hawkish stance on Iran—he had, after all, been fired from the Obama administration for advocating for war with Iran.  Over the course of his two years as secretary of defense, he was repeatedly vexed by Trump’s handling of America’s alliances, particularly with countries in Europe and Asia, and his advice on Russia and the Iran deal went unheeded. He did convince Trump not to pull out of Afghanistan, but it appears that the president is on the cusp of doing just that. At the same time, Mattis went along with the administration’s draconian family separation policy and Trump’s decision to send 5,000 active-duty troops to the border as an election stunt (which Mattis defended as “humanitarian”) and was seemingly incapable of doing anything to influence Trump’s profoundly reckless approach to North Korea.

As the Trump administration progressed, and particularly as Trump surrounded himself with more like-minded advisers, like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, Mattis’s influence began to wane. By the fall, it was clear that he was on his way out; reports began circulating that he was planning to retire, while Trump told The New York Times that he thought that Mattis was “sort of a Democrat.” Whatever was said in private, Mattis was unable to prevent Trump from damaging alliances and creating diplomatic chaos. Ultimately, the decision to resign came after Trump decided to pull out of Syria, a reasonable decision being carried out in typically reckless fashion.

Mattis’s role in the administration was comforting to the many people outside of it who believed that a group of sensible, mature officials could restrain the president. The “adults in the room” fantasy was driven by the idea that things could be so much worse, if not for the courageous few who diligently worked to put out the fires that Trump started. “Until a few days ago Mattis was telling friends he felt an obligation to stay and do his best. His resignation suggests not merely that he thinks Syria was a bad decision, but that he now thinks Trump can’t be talked out of further bad decisions—on Afghanistan, and others too,” tweeted Bill Kristol.

But looking at the last two years, there’s little evidence that these “adults” did much of anything to restrain Trump or to talk him out of bad decisions. As Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, noted in the Times on Friday, Mattis had “only the power of delay and limited obstruction—not a practical veto or even, necessarily, a strong voice at the table in the White House Situation Room.” Mattis also rarely spoke out against the administration’s foreign policy decisions and went as far as to defend the pre-election troop deployment as “humanitarian.” Instead, he largely laid low, responsibly overseeing the Pentagon but ultimately doing little to influence American policy. He may have made people feel better about the chaos inside the administration, but did very little to stem it.