Former secretary of defense James Mattis repeatedly refused MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell's invitations to criticize President Donald Trump in an interview Thursday.
Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, resigned in December over policy differences with Trump, specifically the president's decision to withdraw American troops from Syria. Mattis, an advocate of cultivating alliances and American engagement, said he had "no choice" but to depart.
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Mitchell quoted a portion of Mattis's new book Call Sign Chaos that criticized the Obama administration—including former vice president and 2020 candidate Joe Biden—for leaving the Middle East in "disarray" and "our friends confused."
"Aren't we at risk of making the same mistake if we withdraw from Afghanistan as the president has ordered by the end of what he says the first term?" she asked.
Mattis said the "strategy-free environment" in which he had operated for 20 years cut across party lines.
Mitchell then asked if the American alliances were weaker now than when Mattis took office in 2017, and Mattis replied, "I don't think I can quantify that."
"NATO is actually stronger today," Mattis said. "Now, there are political tensions. Those tensions have always been there in NATO where the American presidents—I remember all the way back to President Clinton when I became aware of this issue—President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama, all saying the same thing President Trump is. You've got to pay more."
After Mattis deflected questions about the resurgence of the Islamic State and the Trump administration's reallocation of military funding toward border wall construction, Mitchell appeared frustrated.
"Aren't you creating a new problem when you spend money, billions of dollars to build a wall that arguably isn't needed to fulfill a campaign promise and take money away from daycare for military families?" Mitchell asked.
Mattis reiterated that he left the administration over "policy differences," and preferred to maintain a "period of silence."
Mitchell next brought up a 2017 cabinet meeting where Mattis stood out by not bestowing praise on Trump with the cameras rolling, instead directing his praise toward the U.S. military. Mattis said he only was thinking at the time about representing the Pentagon as an "apolitical organization."
"There was nothing deeper to it than what you saw there," he added.
Mitchell tried again by asking what Mattis thought of Trump's firing of Rex Tillerson over Twitter, but he replied he wouldn't get into "political assessments."
Mitchell also asked what Mattis's extensive reading list said about a "chief executive who does not read."
"Andrea, I'm going to frustrate you here," Mattis said.
"No, no, I'm done asking about him," she said. "I'm asking you about the importance of reading for a CEO, for a chief executive, for a commander."
"One of the reasons I read is to buttress my weak areas," he said. "When you make general, you're handed a new list of books you've got to go read."
"Maybe someone should give one to a commander in chief, starting with Call Sign Chaos," Mitchell said wryly, a minute after saying she wasn't referring to Trump.
Mitchell concluded with her most explicit invitation for a political answer, asking if Mattis worried his criticism of prior administrations was "normalizing" Trump.
"I don't think one person can normalize anything," he replied. "Right now, I've got a lot of faith in the American people to draw their own conclusions. Remember that I signed the contract to write a book about military leadership in 2013. I was not the secretary of defense. I never aspired to be the secretary of defense. Joe Biden was not running for president. It's a book written about policy and strategy. I don't even in this book get into political assessments of who the American people elected."
"But now can't you speak more publicly about your assessments?" Mitchell asked.
Mattis replied that he wanted to maintain the military tradition of keeping mum on American politics.
"This is a military, Department of Defense tradition, that we maintain the military's apolitical role obedient to the elected leadership, and the American people have good judgment," he said. "They will make the right decisions. I believe very strongly in our Constitution and our form of government."