Was James Mattis the Last Check on Trump?

Was James Mattis the Last Check on Trump?
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

In January of 2017, while awaiting Senate confirmation as Donald Trump's secretary of defense, retired Marine General James Mattis was warned about the new president in a telephone call from Democratic Congressman Adam Smith. “I called him and said, ‘Trump has no idea what he's doing, but isn't afraid to do it,” Smith recounted, then explained that he warned Mattis that Trump's closest advisers were likely to feed the new president's worst instincts. “You're across the river, and they're across the hall,” Smith explained to Mattis. “Your job is to make sure these morons don't get up in the morning and advance some lamebrained idea.”

Over the next months, Mattis had ample opportunity to heed Smith's warning. In April of 2017, the newly minted defense secretary received a call from Trump, who was enraged by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's chemical attack in Idlib. Trump had seen pictures gathered by U.S. intelligence agencies of the attack's civilian victims, and he was outraged. He wanted Assad dead: “Let's f-cking kill him,” Trump shouted in his telephone exchange with Mattis. “Let's go in. Let's kill the f-cking lot of them.” Mattis reassured Trump that he would come up with military response options, then ended the call. He turned to an aide: “We're not going to do any of that,” he announced. “We're going to be much more measured.” 

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