In the 60 Minutes interview that aired on Sunday, President Donald Trump made some statements that seemed designed to provoke his secretary of defense. Asked about Mattis’s view that alliances like NATO are needed to help prevent World War III, Trump huffily responded, “Frankly, I like General Mattis. I think I know more about it than he does.” When queried about whether Mattis would be staying on the job, Trump gave an answer that was far from reassuring: “I think he’s sort of a Democrat, if you wanna know the truth. But General Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well. He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave. That’s Washington.”
Interviewed by reporters on Monday, Mattis tried to defuse the president’s words. Mattis claimed he was “proudly apolitical” since joining the Marine Corps at age 18. He indicated that he saw his job was to serve the elected commander in chief. “I’ve never registered for any political party,” Mattis said, adding that he and Trump “never talked about me leaving ... We just continue doing our job.”
Although Mattis’s words were meant to reassure those who see him as a pillar of sanity in a chaotic administration, the fact remains that he and Trump are not speaking from the same script. At some point, the discrepancy between Mattis’s view of himself as a loyal team player and Trump’s suspicion that the secretary of defense is “sort of a Democrat” is likely to lead to a real rift. Mattis might be intent on keeping a tight grip on his current job, but Trump’s remarks still foretell an eventual departure.