Trump Calls Mattis 'Sort of a Democrat' in 60 Minutes Interview

In this Oct. 9, 2018, file photo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, in Washington. President Donald Trump says he has a “very good relationship” with  Mattis even though he thinks the Pentagon chief is “sort of a Democrat.” (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
In this Oct. 9, 2018, file photo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, in Washington. President Donald Trump says he has a “very good relationship” with Mattis even though he thinks the Pentagon chief is “sort of a Democrat.” (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump described Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as "sort of a Democrat" in an interview broadcast Sunday, renewing speculation that the retired Marine four-star general would quit his Cabinet post after the elections in November.

"It could be that he is" leaving, Trump said of Mattis on the CBS "60 Minutes" program.

"I think he's sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth," Trump said. "But General Mattis is a good guy. We get along very well. He may leave. I mean, at some point, everybody leaves. Everybody. People leave. That's Washington."

In his remarks on Mattis, Trump did not close the door to him remaining in the post as the Pentagon's top civilian, where he has been a stable influence in an administration marked by high turnover.

Last week, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who has worked closely with Mattis, announced that she was leaving on what appeared to be friendly terms with Trump.

When asked by CBS' Leslie Stahl whether Mattis might leave, Trump said "Well, I don't know. He hasn't told me that."

Trump also labeled as "fake news" reports that the turnover rate of officials in high posts had left the administration in turmoil.

"I have people now on standby that will be phenomenal. They'll come into the administration," Trump said.

Trump said the turnover was likely to continue.

"Yeah, other people will go, sure," Trump said, adding that his current Cabinet was "great."

"There are some people I'm not happy with. I have some people that I'm not thrilled with," Trump said, without mentioning names. "And I have other people that I'm beyond thrilled with."

The speculation on the possibility of Mattis leaving rose with the recent publication of "Fear," a narrative of backbiting within Trump's administration by celebrated journalist Bob Woodward.

In the book, Mattis was quoted as telling aides that Trump had the understanding of a "fifth- or sixth-grader" on world and military affairs.

In addition, the Woodward book said that Mattis ignored Trump's demand to plan an assassination attempt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in April 2017, after Syria launched chemical attacks in the Damascus suburbs.

"We're not going to do any of that. We're going to be much more measured," Mattis told an aide, according to the book.

Mattis denied ever making the remarks. In a statement after the book's publication, Mattis said that "the contemptuous words about the president attributed to me in Woodward's book were never uttered by me or in my presence."

In response to Trump's latest remarks, Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, issued a statement Sunday, reported by multiple media outlets:

"Secretary Mattis is laser-focused on doing his job -- ensuring the US military remains the most lethal force on the planet," Manning said in the statement.

The speculation that Trump and Mattis would eventually be at odds began shortly after the Defense Secretary took the oath of office. When Mattis was nominated, Trump took to referring to him by a nickname he detests: "Mad Dog." Mattis told defense reporters that he'd like to be called "just Jim."

As Defense Secretary, Mattis has avoided the expressions of loyalty to Trump sometimes voiced by other Cabinet members.

He has also, at times, openly expressed disagreement with the direction of Trump's policies. When Trump moved to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran, Mattis, a hardliner on Iran's "malign influence" in the region, said that elements of the deal restricting Iran's nuclear and missile programs should be preserved.

Mattis has also worked behind the scenes to assure allies of the U.S. commitment to NATO following Trump's frequent charges that member states were not paying their fair share on defense.

Last month, Mattis appeared to be caught off-guard by statements from National Security Advisor John Bolton that the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria would not be withdrawn until Iranian forces and Iranian-allied militias also left the country.

In an informal session with defense reporters, Mattis repeated the Pentagon's stance that U.S. withdrawals would solely be based on the defeat of ISIS, but insisted that there was "no daylight" between him and Bolton.

Also last month, Mattis again dismissed reports that he was considering resigning as bad rumors.

"It'll die down," Mattis told reporters on the steps of the Pentagon, while greeting a visiting dignitary. "How many times have we been through this now, just since I've been here? It'll die down soon and the people who started the rumor will be allowed to write the next rumor, too."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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