Trump administration officials are reportedly saying that U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis attempted to convince President Donald Trump to seek congressional approval before carrying out strikes on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack that some administration officials allege were carried out by Assad’s forces.
According to unnamed “military and administration” sources cited by The New York Times, President Trump allegedly rejected Mattis’ advice regarding congressional approval, preferring instead to carry out a rapid show of force to punctuate his tough talk against the Assad regime. However, New York Times sources claim that Sec. Mattis, who warned that an escalation with Syrian-allied Russia could spark a wider war, successfully convinced Trump to limit the strikes to three, two-minute low-profile 105 missile midnight strikes on suspected chemical weapons production facilities, in an effort to save face while avoiding casualties to Russian troops embedded with Syrian forces.
The Hill notes that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Sec. Mattis denied the report.
“Reports that Secretary Mattis urged the president to seek congressional approval before last week’s strikes in Syria are categorically false. As Secretary Mattis explained to Congress in yesterday’s all-member briefs, the president appropriately ordered the strikes under his constitutional authorities,” Press Secretary Sanders claimed in a statement.
“I have no idea where that story came from. I found nothing in it that I could recall from my own last week’s activities,” Sec. Mattis said as he addressed reporters following a meeting with Qatar’s defense minister.
The New York Times report also claimed that newly-hired national security adviser John Bolton has weakened Mattis’ influence over President Trump.
“Until this month, Mr. Mattis had a buffer at the White House in the former national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who often deferred to the defense secretary, a retired four-star Marine general. The arrival of Mr. Trump’s new national security adviser, John R. Bolton, means that buffer is gone,” wrote New York Times reporter Helene Cooper.
She added, “Administration and congressional officials said the hawkish Mr. Bolton is not expected to defer to the defense secretary; already, neoconservative members of the Republican foreign policy establishment have started to air concerns that Mr. Mattis is ceding strategic territory to Iran and Russia in Syria.”
In a Monday congressional hearing over the strikes, Sec. Mattis defended Trump’s strikes after-the-fact by claiming a rationale for them that foreign policy analyst Benjamin Haas at the New York University School of Law publication Just Security said “loosely resembled self-defense.”
“We have forces in the field, as you know, in Syria, and the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not something that we should assume that, well, because he didn’t use them on us this time, he wouldn’t use them on us next time…Protection of our forces—I don’t think we have to wait until they’re under chemical attack when the weapons are used in the same theater we’re operating in,” Mattis said to members of Congress.
Just Security’s Haas claimed that Mattis’ rationale for a Constitutional basis for the strikes was “profoundly flawed” because the U.S. has no evidence that Assad is planning an imminent chemical weapons attack on U.S. troops located in the theater.