I cringed after Donald Trump started trashing James Mattis following his resignation as Secretary of Defense. Mattis’s departure was reportedly connected to Trump’s announced withdrawal from Syria, which Mattis opposed. In response to Mattis’s departure, rather than praise him for his service and acknowledge the tremendous progress they’d made together cleaning up the mess left by Obama, Trump trashed Mattis as “the world’s most overrated general.”
Mattis wasn’t the only person Trump kicked out the door with a litany of attacks. He lambasted former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as “dumb as a rock,” and described his former chief of staff, John Kelly, as being “in over his head.” Any loyalty these men and others felt toward Trump was effectively destroyed, opening Trump to criticism from these very men looking to restore their reputations after being attacked by the most powerful man in the world.
Mattis coming out to attack Trump was inevitable, as was the media onslaught in response to Mattis’s criticisms.
Slate even described the attack as “unprecedented.” I’m sure others will echo this description, eager to present Trump as unique amongst other presidents by being criticized by a former secretary of defense. Except that this is hardly unique at all. Barack Obama was blasted by not just one, but three of his former secretaries of defense.
Obama’s first secretary of defense, Robert Gates, resigned without incident in 2011, but would later criticize Obama’s role as commander in chief in his memoir published a few years later. It revealed a troubled relationship between Obama and the Pentagon:
… Gates – who was first appointed to his post by former President George W Bush – reveals, in a series of swipes that are surprisingly combative coming from such a senior former official, problems between the White House and the Pentagon that have made for troubling relations at the very highest levels.
“All too early in the administration,” adds Gates, “suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials – including the president and vice-president – became a big problem for me as I tried to manage the relationship between the commander in chief and his military leaders.”
Perhaps most damagingly, he also alleges that Obama did not believe in his own strategy for ending the war in Afghanistan, which he was “skeptical if not outright convinced … would fail,” and that he was skeptical at best about the leadership of the country’s president, Hamid Karzai.
“The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out,” writes Gates.
In 2013, Obama’s second secretary of defense, Leon Panetta, resigned after less than two years on the job over frustrations with Obama. Panetta also wrote a memoir revealing disturbing details about his time in the Obama administration, and told of Obama’s repeated decisions to ignore his advice, citing specifically “the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq in 2011, the failure to intervene in Syria’s civil war by arming rebels and the abrupt reversal of Mr. Obama’s decision to strike Syria in retaliation for using chemical weapons on civilians.”
In 2014, shortly after the midterm elections that saw Republicans take control of the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama fired Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel over, you guessed it, policy and strategy disagreements. Hagel said in an interview a year later that the Obama White House tried to “destroy” him and that they had no strategy for fixing Syria.
Hagel, now that time has passed and he’s willing to discuss his tenure in office, cited the episode as an example of a White House that has struggled to formulate a coherent policy on Syria, holding interminable meetings that would often end without a decision, even as conditions on the ground worsened and the death toll grew steadily higher.
The 69-year-old former Nebraska senator and Vietnam War veteran, speaking for the first time about his treatment by the Obama administration, said the Pentagon was subject to debilitating meddling and micromanagement by the White House — echoing criticism made by his predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.
Looking back on his tenure, Hagel said in the Dec. 10 interview that he remains puzzled as to why some administration officials sought to “destroy” him personally in his final days in office, castigating him in anonymous comments to newspapers even after he had handed in his resignation.
Although he does not identify her by name, Hagel’s criticisms are clearly aimed at Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, and some of her staff. Hagel’s former aides, and former White House officials, say the defense secretary frequently butted heads with Rice over Syria policy and the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo.
Why does this matter? Rest assured, this isn’t whataboutism. Let’s look at the reaction Mattis’s recent comments are getting, and compare that to the coverage Obama’s SecDefs speaking out against him got. Liberal media is praising Mattis, and moderate Republicans are finding themselves needing to take sides. Did this happen with Obama when three—not one, but three—of his former secretaries of defense criticized him and his leadership abilities? Of course it didn’t. I don’t agree with Mattis’s critique, but considering the way Trump trashed him I’m not surprised it happened. Trump, for whatever reason, rarely parts on good terms with people in his administration and it baffles me. But even more baffling is how the media couldn’t have cared less about Obama’s former secretaries of defense raising alarms about how Obama conducted foreign policy. Trump may pay a price for treating his former officials so poorly, but America paid a price for the media ignoring the constant stream of red flags during the Obama presidency.
Matt Margolis is the author of The Scandalous Presidency of Barack Obama and the bestselling The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. His new book, Trumping Obama: How President Trump Saved Us From Barack Obama’s Legacy, will be published in 2019. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattMargolis