Mattis Constantly Put Out 'Dumpster Fires' Trump Administration Caused, Aide Claims

In this Dec. 20, 2017, file photo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
In this Dec. 20, 2017, file photo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

At this point, insider memoirs about brief stints in a chaotic Trump administration have almost become a genre in their own right. But "Holding the Line" by Guy Snodgrass, a Navy fighter pilot turned speechwriter for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, has attracted more than its share of attention.

Snodgrass, who spent a year and a half on Mattis' team prior to his retirement, offers a rare look inside the operations of one of the so-called "adults in the room" -- a term used to describe Mattis, as well as others including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly -- as he worked with a mercurial and easily distracted president to craft a National Defense Strategy and execute a coherent foreign policy, while keeping up comms with all stakeholders.

Mattis' team is not inured from the dysfunction: Snodgrass describes whisper campaigns and friendly fire. He himself is shown the door after passing up an opportunity to command an aircraft carrier and choosing to retire. The pace of work is punishing, and Mattis has little time for relationship-building and mentorship. But a portrait does emerge of a statesman who labors relentlessly to maintain U.S. alliances and keep the sacrifices of the U.S. military in focus, while publicly preserving a position of "no daylight" between himself and the White House.

For his efforts as chronicler of Mattis' tenure, Snodgrass is getting no thanks: An assistant to the now-retired SecDef and former four-star commander of U.S. Central Command released a statement calling him a "junior staffer" who had violated Mattis' trust by taking notes and "surrendered his honor" for "a few brief moments of attention."

For his own part, Snodgrass said writing the account was a function of his commitment to duty as a naval officer and a way to offer the public insights into the lasting impact of decisions made by the Trump administration.

Snodgrass spoke with ahead of the Oct. 29 release of "Holding the Line: Inside Trump's Pentagon with Secretary Mattis." Some responses have been condensed for space and clarity. I'm sure you knew going in what kind of criticisms you'd get and what the response would be to a book of this nature. So why was this book so important for you to write regardless?

Guy Snodgrass: There's so much disinformation that's being tossed around in the public discourse that isn't underpinned by a lot of fact, or firsthand experience of what actually has been happening behind the scenes. In my case, especially as a naval officer, and then as a fighter pilot, you know, it's something we were always used to doing when you brief a flight. You fly the actual mission, but then you realize the most important part of that whole series of events was at the very end of it. You always came back, you watched your tapes, and you talked about what had happened -- the good things and, more importantly, the bad things -- so that you could learn lessons and apply those to the next missions or to pass them on to the people who come behind you. So it just felt like a natural extension of my service to write the book and to put it out there so people and all Americans, in this case, could actually have a chance to better understand how the Trump administration functions and also some of the issues that are of national significance. The Mattis camp's response was a strong statement about your sacrificing your honor to tell this story. What's your response to that?

GS: One, I was disappointed. And I would also say that I think he should know better. I mean, we were cut from similar cloth; we both had the same or similar military training. And so when you go through that training, you realize that no one can define your honor, your character, your integrity for you. That's something you do through your own actions. And, you know, for me, honor and character are found when you do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. You don't wait to act when it's convenient to do so. And so, in the same vein, loyalty is this unyielding fidelity to the truth. And so when we think about our role as public servants ... our loyalty belongs to America, rather than any one person. So that's why I felt very comfortable about sharing this. What kind of events and interactions did you choose to leave out of your book?

GS: This is a memoir of my experience. There were certainly elements of things I witnessed behind the scenes there, where it's a pressurized environment. It is. Despite what anybody might want to tell you, because they want to sound hip and cool, it was a stressful environment. There were a lot of ad hoc decisions being made and being dictated from the White House, where we found ourselves behind or caught catching up. Whether it was the surprise creation of the Space Force, where we didn't even find out about it until real time, or the transgender tweets that came out. And when those moments occur, of course, as you might expect, there's a lot more color that happens behind the scenes or things that are said that, frankly would not be -- you know, out of context -- would not do [Mattis] or some of the people closely associated with [him] much justice. So it was important to me to make sure that I could produce something that, one, was historically accurate ... that gave Americans a window into how these kinds of national-level decisions are made -- the importance of our alliances and partnerships, but at the same time, didn't go into some of the mudslinging. I wanted this to be a book that my children could pick up in a couple of years and read and say, "I'm proud of my dad." Even before he became SecDef, Jim Mattis had already become an iconic American figure. What do people tend to get wrong about what he's like?

GS: You know, he has a very carefully manicured public persona. But largely behind the scenes, he's a very similar guy. He's laser-focused on the task at hand. He's hard as nails to work for; he is not a person who's going to go out of his way to express personal interest in his team. But that's not necessarily a demeaning comment. It's just his [outlook on duty], you know. His service belongs to the United States of America. Early in the book, you talk about your planning around what the Mattis legacy would be. Since his time as SecDef was cut short by his own choosing, what do you ultimately believe his legacy is?

GS: His three lines of effort [were to] restore military readiness and strengthen the military; to preserve and strengthen alliances and partnerships; and to essentially reform the Defense Department for performance and affordability. I felt that the acquisitions reform would have the longest-lasting effect. And unfortunately, at least in the year and a half I had there ... a lot of those grand designs rapidly fell away. Mattis spent so much of his time literally putting out the dumpster fires created by the administration. ... I believe that his legacy largely will be seeking to preserve the existing international order and America's place in it. So working to preserve our alliances and partnerships. ... What he was able to do for his moment in time was to be a steady hand on the tiller to help guide the American military through some pretty challenging times as it relates to our NATO allies or allies in the Pacific in the Middle East. Since the administration is now moving forward with efforts like the Syria pullout without him, did his presence as SecDef matter ultimately? What difference did it make?

GS: I think that we're going to need more time to evaluate the answer. Because, as we've seen in our highly polarized environment, you've got plenty of people who are Mattis fans who will say that he saved the country. You'll have plenty of people who, frankly, don't care much for Mattis. They don't care for the fact he has remained silent in order to remain loyal to Donald Trump. I think as we move a few more years down the road, perhaps even a little bit further, only then we'll be able to gaze backward and say, 'OK, here's what was accomplished.' But we simply don't know enough at this point to make a definitive answer there.

"Holding the Line" is available now from Sentinel Press.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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