The War Room
The day began well enough. Six months into his young presidency, Donald Trump arrived at the front steps of the Pentagon on a muggy Thursday morning in late July. Alighting from "the Beast," the heavily armored presidential limo, Trump was greeted by his favorite general, Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis. Mattis didn't care for this nickname, but Trump, whose experience of the military was limited to a stint at a military-style boarding school, reveled in the four-star generals on his team, especially the "killers." Trump respected the raw power embodied by the US military.
As Trump ascended the front steps of the Pentagon on the morning of July 20, 2017, a reporter shouted, "Mr. President: Are you sending more troops to Afghanistan?" An intense and largely hidden battle was then consuming Trump's war cabinet about precisely this question.
At the top of the Pentagon steps, flanked by an honor guard and towering over his secretary of defense, the president responded with one of his favorite lines, saying, "We'll see."
Trump was at the Pentagon for a briefing that was planned by Mattis; Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon; Trump's national security adviser, Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster; the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson; and Trump's chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn. They all felt it would be useful for Trump-the first American president not to have served in public office or the military-to receive a briefing about what exactly the United States was doing around the globe as well as its economic relationships and security arrangements. They also wanted Trump to understand the tools at his disposal as the commander in chief, from the eleven US aircraft carriers to American nuclear weapons capabilities.
Trump's key advisers all had quite different goals for the briefing. Bannon was the standard-bearer of Trump's "America First" populism and he hoped that the briefing would show Trump how overextended and overcommitted the United States was overseas. Mattis and Tillerson wanted to make the case for the United States' alliances that had shaped the world order since World War II. Those alliances, in their view, had benefited the United States tremendously, not only by hastening the peaceful implosion of the Soviet Union, but also more recently when a US-led NATO force had formed after 9/11 to oust the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Cohn wanted to make the case for the economic rules-based international order that was built on free trade and had created unprecedented prosperity around the world.
On the surface, Bannon and Mattis didn't have much in common. A laconic, publicity-shy general and lifelong bachelor, Mattis had enlisted in the US Marines when he was eighteen and had spent his entire career in the military. Bannon, a voluble ringmaster of a man who had landed on the cover of Time for his role in reigniting Trump's presidential campaign, had served an eight-year stint in the navy and then gone to work at Goldman Sachs and later as a Hollywood producer. More recently he had run the far-right media site Breitbart News.
Despite their different temperaments and experiences, both men shared a love of books and military history. If Bannon wasn't discussing American politics, he was almost a different person talking knowledgeably about Asia, financial markets, and Alfred Thayer Mahan, the American historian who was the most influential naval strategist in the world in the run-up to World War I.
A four-star general was likely to move around some two dozen times during the course of a long career. Typically, the general would move his family and household effects from one posting to the next. General Mattis instead moved his books-all seven thousand of them. In 2003 during the Iraq War, Mattis explained in an email to a fellow officer why deep reading about the history of warfare could help to save American lives on the battlefield: "By reading, you learn through others' experiences-generally a better way to do business-especially in our line of work where the consequences of incompetence are so final for young men."
Bannon met with Mattis and two of his top aides, senior adviser Sally Donnelly and chief of staff retired Rear Admiral Kevin Sweeney, in Mattis's Pentagon office at 7:00 am on Saturday, June 24, to discuss the United States' military posture around the world. During the course of a several-hour discussion, Bannon said to Mattis, "We're talking about putting in Special Operations Forces from North Africa to the Saudi Peninsula to Asia. You're all over the place. And there's no strategy to back it up. It feels like we're in something like seventy-three countries. We've got to pull the camera back and we've got to set a strategic framework."
Bannon was obsessed by the long-term threat posed by China. He drew a diagram on a piece of paper for Mattis and his staff showing how China posed a rising challenge to American global supremacy, in particular, because of its ambitious "One Belt, One Road" policy that was designed to build transportation infrastructure that intertwined China deeply with the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
The solution, Bannon said, was to build up "the Quad," which was an emerging alliance between the democratic Pacific powers: Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.
Bannon kept a dog-eared, marked-up copy of Unrestricted Warfare, a treatise that was published by two Chinese army colonels in 1999. It laid out a surprisingly prescient strategy about how China could undercut the militarily far-superior United States through economic warfare and information operations. Bannon gave a copy of the book to Trump. At the White House, Bannon also handed out copies of Michael Pillsbury's 2015 book The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. A longtime scholar of China, Pillsbury argued that the Chinese were stealthily and patiently building up their economic, political, and military power with the ultimate aim to take their "rightful place" as the world's sole superpower, but they were doing it in such a way that they weren't, for the moment, directly challenging the United States.
Bannon also diagrammed for Mattis other key threats that he believed were in the ascendant, such as Iran. As he sketched out these threats, Bannon said, "Look, this is the dark valley. This is the 1930s all over again, right?"
In college, Bannon had studied the historian Arnold Toynbee, who argued that history was an endless cycle of the rise and decay of civilizations. Was the United States going to be the next hegemon in the also-ran category? An obscure tract published in 1997 also influenced Bannon, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy-What the Cycles of History Tell Us about America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny. It was a work of pseudohistory purporting to have found the secret to the ebbs and flows of American history, and it prophesied a looming catastrophe for the United States. The Fourth Turning helped to confirm Bannon's belief that the United States, and indeed the entire West, was in a phase of deep civilizational decay and was on the road to ruin until Trump had come along to save it.
Bannon was raised as a devout, orthodox Catholic and he believed strongly that "Judeo-Christian civilization" was under attack. Bannon's apocalyptic vision du monde was underlined in an address he delivered via Skype to a group of conservative Catholics who were meeting at the Vatican during the summer of 2014. To the group at the Vatican, Bannon asserted, "We're at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that's starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we've been bequeathed over the last two thousand five hundred years."
Back in Mattis's vast office at the Pentagon, Bannon said that Trump should be briefed on all of America's global commitments from "the Pacific, all the way to the Gulf, to NATO. And let's talk about the commercial relationships, the capital markets, the trade deals, the military-security alliances, and what we have as far as weapons, manpower, and bases."
Bannon suggested that they do these presentations in "the Tank," a bland conference room deep in the bowels of the Pentagon where the chiefs of the various branches of the military conducted their most important, classified business.
Bannon told Mattis that Trump "loves the Tank, because that's where FDR and General Marshall ran World War II. It's very historic."
Mattis replied, "That's a great idea."
A day before the July 20 briefing in the Tank, Mattis went to see Tillerson in his seventh-floor conference room at the State Department to prep for the meeting with Trump. Neither Mattis nor Tillerson was a Trump guy. Both in their midsixties and outsiders in Trumpland who had never met Trump before they started working for him, they had formed a tight alliance that was cemented over a weekly breakfast that took place on Thursdays in the magnificently appointed formal reception rooms on the top floor of the State Department. Both cabinet secretaries were concerned that the United States was pulling back from the world. Already Trump had pulled the country out of the Paris climate agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the trade deal between a dozen Pacific countries that was designed in part to contain the rise of China. Trump was also questioning the value of having a large military footprint overseas, whether it was in Europe or Asia. Mattis and Tillerson wanted to give Trump a primer about what the United States was doing around the world and how it benefited America's security and kept international trade flowing.
For the briefing in the Tank, they sat Trump, of course, at the head of the conference room table. Sitting next to him was Mattis, and close to him was General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top military adviser to the president and the most senior officer in the US military. During the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, then-Colonel "Fighting Joe" Dunford and then-major general Mattis had worked closely, leading their marines in the fight to seize Baghdad.
Because the briefing was also going to outline American trade deals and financial commitments, in attendance were Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who were both enormously rich veterans of Goldman Sachs. Sitting on the "backbenches" around the wall of the room were Bannon, who placed himself close to Trump, and Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as well as a slew of senior military and national security officials.
Not present to discuss this overview of American national security was the national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, who was taking some rare time off for a family vacation.
This absence suited Tillerson, who barely spoke to McMaster. When McMaster was presiding over a "principals" meeting of Trump's war cabinet, Tillerson would routinely "table-drop" documents at the last minute that hadn't been circulated ahead of time to cabinet officials, which was Tillerson's not-so-subtle way of trying to take control of the meeting and to sideline McMaster.
McMaster's absence also suited Mattis, who pointedly referred to him as "Lieutenant General McMaster" in meetings. This was understood by officials at those meetings to be an intentional reminder that Mattis was an exalted, retired four-star general, while McMaster was an uppity officer of more junior rank. Also, Lieutenant General McMaster remained in uniform while he was the national security adviser so, in a sense, the secretary of defense was his boss. Mattis's experience of being micromanaged by the Obama White House while he ran Central Command (CENTCOM) also seemed to have influenced his thinking about the role that the national security adviser should play in managing the Pentagon, which in his view was as little as possible.
For his part, McMaster felt that Mattis "slow rolled" any of the president's priorities he disagreed with, such as providing a range of options for potential military strikes against North Korea.
McMaster began referring to Mattis and Tillerson as the "Club of Two."
Both Tillerson and Mattis refused to send State Department and Pentagon officials to work for McMaster, a tactic that seemed designed to weaken the National Security Council, an unprecedented effort to undermine it since it was routine in every administration for Foreign Service officers and Pentagon officials to be detailed to work there.
Trump also found McMaster-a brilliant officer with a history PhD and a penchant for making multiple carefully constructed, professorial points about any given topic-to be something of an irritant. If McMaster presented on the Middle East to Trump, he might begin with the Ottoman Empire, showing scant instinct for his audience's zone of interest or aptitude.
Bannon had warned McMaster before he took the job as national security adviser, "Whatever you do don't be professorial. Trump is a game-day player. Trump is a guy who never went to class. Never got the syllabus. Never bought a book. Never took a note. He basically comes in the night before the final exams after partying all night, puts on a pot of coffee, takes your notes, memorizes what he's got to memorize. Walks in at eight o'clock in the morning and gets whatever grade he needs. That's the reason he doesn't like professors. He doesn't like being lectured to."
For Bannon and McMaster it was even simpler; they held each other in considerable mutual contempt. Bannon described McMaster as a "fucking globalist and a professor," while McMaster could never figure out exactly what Bannon's deal was. What was Bannon actually trying to accomplish? Bannon was the smartest and most well-read of the America First faction in the Trump administration, while McMaster was the smartest and most well-read of the internationalist bloc. The arguments between them about the United States' proper role in the world would in many ways define the debates about American foreign policy and national security strategy during Trump's presidency.