Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Happy Halloween - inside the first pentagon briefing with the Effing Moron

Here’s a story from Politico.com that should scare the bejeesus out of us all.

Inside Trump’s First Pentagon Briefing. What [Guy Snodgrass] saw there that foretold the coming rift between Mattis and the president—and today’s foreign policy crises. Guy Snodgrass is former chief speechwriter for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He is the author of Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon With Secretary Mattis, from which this [Politico] article is adapted.

War room

Here is some of the story (with some rearranging of paragraphs).

As planned, Mattis kicked off the meeting with remarks we had rehearsed in his office a number of times. Mattis tends to turn professorial during important meetings, providing the audience with excessive detail rather than tailoring his approach to the group he’s speaking with. This instinct worsens when he is anxious about an event, and he will spend an inordinate amount of time on tactical details that have little bearing on strategic outcomes in order to bolster his confidence level. Unfortunately, to the room his opening sounded too much like a lecture.

Trump scowled.

Mattis worked through his first slide about “chokepoints,” extremely narrow, landlocked corridors between larger bodies of water. He then shared his philosophical view about America’s two fundamental powers of intimidation and inspiration, telling the president a story I’d heard many times.

Years before, a terrorist had attempted to kill then-two-star general Mattis with an improvised explosive device. Marines notified Mattis that they had captured the terrorist as he was trying to place the device on the road Mattis frequently traveled, using two 155-millimeter mortar rounds, a car battery and a detonator. Not the terrorist’s finest day. As Mattis told me during a meeting in his office, “The terrorist realized as he stared down the rifle barrels pointed at him that he was in danger of losing his 401(k).”

Mattis decided to speak with the terrorist after he was apprehended. Once in a holding room, Mattis slid a cup of coffee across the table to help break the ice as he sat down. Ultimately, the terrorist wanted to know: “Do you think if I’m really good at Guantanamo, will they let me move to America after I’m released?” As Mattis told it, the story represents two fundamental powers: We can intimidate others through our military superiority, but America’s power to inspire is every bit as—and perhaps even more—powerful.

Mattis continued with his briefing, walking through in exacting detail the force ratios in each major geographic location. He sought to convince the president that our allies and partners put forward far more troops in support of stability abroad than America does. In short, America gets a good deal from an overseas military presence.

The president frowned, fiddling with the papers in front of him while glancing around the room.

Mattis’ third slide triggered a stronger response from Trump. A visual depiction of our Pacific posture, this slide zoomed in on the U.S. forces located in Japan and South Korea—forces that had kept the peace in both countries for more than six decades. It detailed the numbers of troops in each country, the cost to American taxpayers, and the costs borne by our allies to support forces in their country. Mattis made the point that America had been willing to accept unfair terms following World War II in order to get both countries back on their feet, but that now would be an opportune time to update our trade agreements should Trump desire to do so.

Mattis loved this slide because it outlined the significant contributions both nations were making, with Japan footing part of the bill to shift U.S. Marines from Okinawa to Guam, and South Korea paying to move Army soldiers to a new base. He emphasized to the president the importance of Japan paying to offset the costs for a new base, saying it was the first time in history they’d done so.

“Who is paying the rest of the bill for the move to Guam?” the president demanded. He was upset that Japan was only covering a part of the total costs required to relocate the base.

There was silence. But only briefly.

“Our trade agreements are criminal,” Trump thundered—despite the fact that Mattis was not talking about anything trade-related. “Japan and South Korea are taking advantage of the United States.” This was decidedly not the message Mattis’ slide intended to convey.

Out of nowhere, the president added, “And the USS Ford [the navy’s newest aircraft carrier] is completely out of control with cost overruns!”

Mattis struggled to regain control of the meeting. In one sense he got what he’d wanted. The president was definitely engaged, but not in the way Mattis had hoped.

Twenty-five minutes later, it was Tillerson’s turn to run the gauntlet. Tillerson was by nature a slow talker. I could tell at once that was not an endearing quality to Trump. When Tillerson’s turn was over, Trump looked like a kid who had been told it was time for recess.

Cohn’s brief was easily the best of the three. It consisted of only three slides. Sensing the president’s mood, Cohn was in and out in under five minutes. All eyes shifted to the president.

A very good study, thank you,” said Trump. “This is one big monster created over a number of years. Japan … Germany … South Korea … our allies are costing more than anyone else at the table!” Again, not the message any of us had intended.

Then the president paused. His eyes seemed animated by a thought.

"I just returned from France,” he said. “Did you see President Macron’s handshake?” he asked no one in particular. “He wouldn’t let go. He just kept holding on. I spent two hours at Bastille Day. Very impressive.”

A pause.

“I want a ‘Victory Day.’ Just like Veterans Day. The Fourth of July is too hot,” he said, apparently out of nowhere. “I want vehicles and tanks on Main Street. On Pennsylvania Avenue, from the Capitol to the White House. We need spirit! We should blow everybody away with this parade. The French had an amazing parade on Bastille Day with tanks and everything. Why can’t we do that?”

Those of us in the control room linked to the Pentagon conference room shifted uncomfortably, shooting glances at each other. Where was this going? We’d opened the control room door 30 minutes before to improve air flow. A Secret Service agent poked his head in, apparently uncomfortable with the conversation and the light it cast on the president. “Hey,” he asked, “do you guys need to still be in here?”

Mattis and his team’s response to the president’s suggestion made clear that they were adamantly opposed to a military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. Mattis and others voiced concern that a parade like what Trump wanted would harken back to Soviet Union—like displays of authoritarian power. Mattis stated that precious taxpayer dollars would be better spent elsewhere, and that the optics of such a display of power would boomerang, causing more harm to America’s international prestige than any domestic benefit could outweigh. Mattis was also concerned that a parade would risk eroding the military’s long-standing apolitical reputation.

It didn’t matter—Trump was serious. Mattis deflected and played for more time by saying, “We’ll take a look at some options and get back to you, Mr. President.”

On it went, with Tillerson and Mattis taking turns with the president, each jumping in to try to keep the discussion focused on the importance of America’s alliance structure, of the critical nature of our global footprint and the economic benefit the United States derives from ensuring global stability and order.

… Over time Mattis began to shut down, sitting back in his chair with a distant, defeated look on his face. He had cared so much about this meeting, had poured his heart and soul into it, and had believed firmly in his ability to bring Trump around to his way of thinking. None of his attempts were working. From my vantage point, Mattis was playing a game of chess against a president fixated on “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”

Across the table from Mattis, Tillerson also became increasingly frustrated, jousting verbally with the president before becoming so exasperated that he stopped talking completely for the last half-hour of the meeting. Tillerson sat back in his chair with his arms crossed, an incredulous scowl on his face as he shot pointed looks over to Mattis.

Many times during Tillerson’s tenure, reporters would claim that he thought his boss was an idiot—and each time Tillerson would deny it publicly. But there was no doubt among most observers in the room that day that Tillerson was thinking exactly that. Both men—Mattis and Tillerson—were despondent. We had just witnessed a meeting with Trump, up close and personal.

For the remainder of the meeting, Trump veered from topic to topic—Syria, Mexico, a recent Washington Post story he didn’t like—like a squirrel caught in traffic, dashing one way and then another.

Now we knew why access was controlled so tightly.

I learned an important lesson that would pay off when Trump returned for a briefing the following January: only use slides with pictures … no words.

And with that, two of the principals concerned with foreign policy (Tillerson) and military readiness (Mattis) were out in the cold, apparently preceded by the third, National Security advisor McMaster.

(Thanks to our Roving Reporter Sherry for this tip.)

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