In the turmoil of the Trump administration’s first year, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis could always count on the steady judgment of Rex Tillerson to help him present a united front to the president.
Whether about doubling down on Afghanistan, or opposing tariffs on U.S. allies, or confronting Russia, Tillerson was always a kindred spirit.
Though coming from vastly different backgrounds, Mattis with his distinguished four-decade military career, and Tillerson as a globetrotting energy executive, the two were seen as an effective duo and made up two-thirds of the so-called “suicide pact” with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The three reportedly have agreed to leave if one of them is fired.
And as a strong believer in diplomacy to resolve conflict, Mattis a grizzled former Marine commander, made no secret of his close relationship with the America’s top diplomat.
“It starts with me having breakfast every week with Secretary of State Tillerson,” Mattis said in January as he was rolling out the National Defense Strategy. “We talk two, three times a day, sometimes. We settle all of our issues between he and I, and then we walk together into the White House meetings. That way, State and Defense are together,”
Monday was just another day in which Tillerson seemed to be on a different page than the White House.
While press secretary Sarah Sanders avoided mentioning Russia, Tillerson issued a full-throated endorsement of the British assessment that Russia was likely responsible for last week’s nerve agent attack, which he called “the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation.”
Trump admitted Tuesday that he left Tillerson out of the loop when he decided to accept Kim Jong Un’s invitation for face-to-face talks about North Korea’s nuclear program.
Mattis always deferred to Tillerson on matters of diplomacy, a habit he will likely continue as Mike Pompeo, who Trump plans to nominate for secretary of state, takes over.
“This is a diplomatically led effort,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him this week. “So I do not want to talk about Korea at all. I’ll leave it to those who are leading the effort, the State Department and the NSC.”
Few doubt that Mattis will adapt and develop a similar working relationship with Pompeo.
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