Mattis losing a close ally in Tillerson but also a weak partner

The loss of one his closest allies may give Defense Secretary Jim Mattis a strengthened relationship with President Donald Trump.

Departing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been a frequent, like-minded confidant to the retired Marine general, who consulted with him several times a day as the two navigated the tumultuous Trump administration. But current and former government officials say the relationship did little good for Mattis, given the clear disdain that Trump and his inner circle have for Tillerson.

In Tillerson’s place, Trump has chosen CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who’s already developed a reputation as a powerful force.

“Director Pompeo gets in to see the president at least three times a week, sometimes more,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about the internal dynamics. “It’s a much deeper and more productive relationship. … This opens opportunities for a more collaborative approach.

Some officials say Mattis, who has gone out of his way to include the State Department in Pentagon decisions, clearly invested more than he got in return from Tillerson, who will probably be remembered as one of the most marginalized secretaries of state in the modern era.

"Mattis is losing a policy ally," said Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense under the Obama administration. "But it’s not clear that Tillerson carried a lot of weight in terms of pushing those policy ideas forward.”

Meanwhile, Mattis and Pompeo are not considered very close, but the two have collaborated on major policy decisions, including the recent review of the military and diplomatic strategy in Afghanistan.

Unlike Tillerson, who came to see the National Security Council “and that whole structure with contempt and was not a team player” and preferred to work directly with Mattis, “Pompeo has a different view of the inter-agency process," said the senior administration official.

Mattis may even benefit from Pompeo’s better standing with Trump relative to Tillerson.

James Jeffrey, who worked closely with Mattis as the Obama administration’s ambassador to Iraq, noted that as a member of the National Security Council’s Principals Committee, Pompeo has been not only a provider of intelligence but “a major player in policy development and policy execution.”

“Pompeo has been doing that for 14 months and we’ve seen no real frictions between them,” Jeffrey said of the CIA director and Mattis. “Most importantly, to be a success, you need to have the president’s support, and by all accounts he has that.”

Flournoy, who recently co-founded WestExec Advisors, agreed.

“My understanding is that Mattis and Pompeo have a very good relationship,” she said. “I haven’t heard any stories about them not working well together.”

There may be areas of policy disagreement between the two men, though, she said. Those could include the Iran nuclear agreement, which Mattis has supported as defense secretary despite his tough views on Iran’s role in the Middle East and which Pompeo vocally opposed as a congressman.

But they could find friction on North Korea. Pompeo, if confirmed by the Senate, would take over the State Department at a sensitive moment in a strategy of pressure and potential negotiations, which Mattis and Tillerson have collaborated closely on. And it would happen just as Trump has stepped in with his offer to negotiate directly with Kim Jong Un.

Preparations for those talks will probably dominate the opening weeks of Pompeo’s State Department tenure.

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute, said he fears that a much more “hawkish” Pompeo will “reinforce Trump’s worst instincts” on the North Korea crisis.

Mattis and Pompeo could also clash on the Iran deal.

“Watch the Iran deal as the barometer for all this,” predicted Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department and Pentagon official who directs the Center for a New American Security’s Middle East Security Program. “Is Pompeo going to encourage the president to walk away from the nuclear deal, or is he going to wind up where Mattis and Tillerson have ended up, in the position of ‘We don’t like the agreement but we have to preserve it?’"

Goldenberg added: "If he argues for staying in the deal, he might have a lot more weight with Trump than Tillerson did. But he might be much more likely to recommend walking away from it.”

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