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Defense Secretary James Mattis Keeps Low Profile Amid White House Controversy


Defense Secretary James Mattis usually keeps a low profile. Yet today was his fourth appearance this week before Congress. The retired Marine general has been testifying about President Trump's proposed defense budget. At a time of political upheaval in Washington, President Trump has continued to rely on Mattis. This week, he delegated even more decision-making authority to the defense secretary. NPR's David Welna reports on the Pentagon chief who's playing his hand carefully.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: When President Trump showed off his entire cabinet earlier this week, Defense Secretary Mattis was seated right at his side. Trump invited those in the room to introduce themselves. And Vice President Pence went first.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to a president who's keeping his word to the American people.

WELNA: One by one, the cabinet members followed suit, thanking and praising Trump. One, though, did not. It was the man he'd chosen to lead the Pentagon.


JAMES MATTIS: Mr. President, it's an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense.

WELNA: Rather than lauding the president, Secretary Mattis expressed gratitude to those under him for the sacrifices they're making. His parting from the pack did not go unnoticed. Philip Gordon was White House coordinator for the Middle East during the Obama administration.

PHILIP GORDON: I do think, of all of the cabinet secretaries, Mattis has been the one who has mostly managed to just get on with the job, distance himself from everything that's going on in the White House.

WELNA: Mattis has also distanced himself somewhat from the reporters who cover him. On a recent, week-long trip to Asia, he agreed only once to answer a question on the record. It was about terrorist attacks that had just occurred in London. His response was guarded.


MATTIS: I need to confirm everything. I like learning about something before I talk. So let me look into it.

WELNA: That cautious remark was immediately contrasted in news reports, to the dismay of Mattis's handlers, to a flurry of tweets about the attack sent out by Trump. Richard Armitage was deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration. He sees why for Mattis the less he says in public, the better.

RICHARD ARMITAGE: I think Secretary Mattis is aware that he has several, sometimes competing constituencies that he has to satisfy at once. First of all, it's the men and women of our armed forces. Second of all, it's his president and his administration. Third of all, it's the U.S. Congress.

WELNA: And this week, during his multiple appearances before Congress, Mattis has gotten an earful.


JOHN MCCAIN: We're now six months into this administration. We still haven't got a strategy for Afghanistan.

WELNA: That's Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, chiding Mattis for failing to deliver a plan for what's next in what's become the nation's longest war.


MCCAIN: Do you agree that we're not winning in Afghanistan?

MATTIS: Sir, I understand the urgency. I understand it's my responsibility. We're not winning in Afghanistan right now.

WELNA: Mattis promised he'd have a plan to share with Congress by the middle of next month. At today's hearing, he told House appropriators he's been given new powers to fight a 15-year war which he acknowledged has not gone well.

MATTIS: This week, President Trump delegated to me the authority to manage troop numbers in Afghanistan.

WELNA: That delegation of authority to a retired general to set new troop levels would seem to remove the argument from a faction-ridden White House over whether to escalate in Afghanistan. Former White House adviser Gordon says it also puts the onus squarely on Mattis.

GORDON: That's the consequence of being given authority. With it comes responsibility and, if things don't go well, blame.

WELNA: And yet for now, at least, Mattis appears to have Trump's ear. For a lot of the president's critics, that in itself is a relief. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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