Mattis Stays Mum on Trump Even While Taking Aim at His Policies

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(Bloomberg) -- Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis criticized the polarized politics in Washington and America’s failure to stand by its allies, all but indicting Donald Trump’s policies even as he continued to refuse to single out the president by name.

“There will come a time when I speak out on strategic issues, on policy issues,” Mattis, who quit his Pentagon post in December, citing policy differences with the president, said Tuesday. “But I need to give some period of time to those who have the responsibility to protect this country in a very difficult age.”

Mattis Stays Mum on Trump Even While Taking Aim at His Policies

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the retired Marine general acknowledged that “I’ve frustrated everyone so far” with oblique criticisms as he promotes “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead,” a new book he co-wrote on leadership.

While Mattis said Tuesday that he doesn’t want to carp from “the cheap seats,” some of his recent comments left little doubt that he disapproved of Trump’s approach. In the Wall Street Journal, for example, he wrote that a “polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader.”

“When we are done with an election, then we all need to at least, to roll up our sleeves and get to work governing,” Mattis said Tuesday. “Elections are about dividing in order to get elected, I understand that. But governing is about uniting. And right now we seem to stay in a constant election mode, and I see it as ‘lets just get together and figure out how to solve the problem together.”’

‘Adult in the Room’

Mattis told MSNBC in an interview Wednesday that he hasn’t spoken with Trump since he resigned. But he said that they met weekly during the nearly two years he served as Defense secretary and they had “very straightforward discussions.”

“You know the kind of man he is. He’s right upfront,” Mattis said. “I’m pretty blunt in my communication style.”

“I often chafed against the idea that I was the adult in the room as if I was doing something off in the corner that he wasn’t aware of,” Mattis said. “That’s not the way I deal with any boss I have had. I have always been right up front. Once in a while its gotten me in hot water. At least my boss always knew whatever the message was I would give it to him.”

On Bush, Obama

But Mattis also offered criticism of past presidents. He lamented the poor preparation leading up the Iraq war under Republican George W. Bush. He criticized Democrat Barack Obama for signing the Iran nuclear deal, saying its restrictions expire “too soon” and its “inspection regime fell short” for a nation that has used “denial and deceit for years to hide” its quest for nuclear weapons. Trump has quit the accord.

While Mattis refused to criticize the Trump administration’s current push for an accord with the Taliban that would let American troops come home from Afghanistan, he did so indirectly by slamming Obama’s pullout from Iraq as a strategic blunder that let Islamic State terrorists flourish.

“We can declare the war over but the enemy gets a vote,” he said. “The idea that we can now turn our back to this threat and that we’re going to live in an island in the global community unaffected by it just doesn’t match. We’re going to have to learn from our past.”

Mattis resigned in December, after Trump announced he was pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria, a plan he later scaled back. In a two-page letter at the time, Mattis criticized the president’s treatment of longtime U.S. allies and implied that Trump’s approach to strategic rivals Russia and China has been ambiguous.

In addition to completing and promoting his book, Mattis, 68, has rejoined the board of defense company General Dynamics Corp., reflecting what critics call the revolving door between the Pentagon and its top contractors.

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