Secretary of Defense James Mattis dismissed murmurings of an ideological divide between himself and President Donald Trump during a press briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Mattis recalled his now-viral “hold the line” speech he gave in front of US service members in Jordan earlier this month, in which his comments were construed not only as a rebuke to a microcosm in America that lacked “understanding and [respect],” but as an ethical separation between Trump and himself.
During the Thursday briefing at the Pentagon, Mattis attempted to explain the true meaning behind his words by first referencing Trump’s recent speech on Afghanistan.
“If you’ll remember, the first, I don’t know, three, four, five, six paragraphs was about America coming together,” Mattis said. “And so, fresh in my mind a couple hours later, and I used that theme to say that, you know, we’ve got to come back together, get that fundamental friendliness. “You guys – military guys, you hold the line as our country comes back together.”
“And people took – literally, I – I’m using the president’s thoughts and they thought that I was distancing from the president,” Mattis continued. “So I mean, it shows how ludicrous this really is.”
“I mean, I’m not trying to make fun of the people who write along those lines,” Mattis said referring to the narrative that he was distancing himself from Trump. “I think this is more someone’s rather rich imagination,” he said.
Theories of a divide between Trump and other White House officials – most notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the White House’s Economic Council director Gary Cohn – have spread as Trump continues to baffle critics and supporters following his administration’s response to the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, rally and continued provocations from North Korea.
During an interview on Fox News Sunday, Tillerson fueled rumors of a White House rift when he was asked whether anyone doubted Trump’s values, in which he responded: “The president speaks for himself.”
Cohn took a more direct approach, publicly criticizing Trump for his controversial response to the Charlottesville protests and said that the White House “must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning” white nationalist and white supremacist groups.
Mattis expressed his confidence that the ostensible divisiveness in the US was not a threat to the military’s unity in the field.
“The way our military is organized, the leaders – and by leaders, I mean the sergeants and the gunnery sergeants, the chief petty officers, the lieutenants, the captains – there is such a cohesion to the US military,” Mattis said. “There’s a reason this is a national jewel, this US military. It’s a national jewel. And that almost insulates it in a very proud way from something like we saw in Charlottesville.”
“That’s not to say it’s not a concern, because this lack of a fundamental friendliness among all of us, something I think the president brought up very well in those opening paragraphs of the Afghanistan speech … I agree a hundred percent with the way the president characterized that,” Mattis said.