President Donald Trump sits in the Cabinet Room with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.
( Pablo Martinez Monsivais
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The President also took aim, and some fire, from the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, erstwhile pal, now sparring partner, Republican Bob Corker.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump went on another tweet storm early this morning over outgoing Republican Senator Bob Corker. And Senator Corker responded by calling the White House, quote, “an adult-day care center.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Corker’s “Trump-as-toddler” metaphor has long been a media trope.
STEPHEN COLBERT: So far, it has been a rough start to the school year for Donald Trump. His report card is definitely going to say “Has problems working and playing well with others.”
And there’s not much we can do. What can we do, ‘cause the Oval Office doesn’t have any the corners. You can’t put him in a time out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Good for a chuckle, until you consider the joke’s on us, given that the President has the nuclear codes and doesn't shrink from baiting North Korea into a potential war. Here’s Vanity Fair’s Special Correspondent Gabriel Sherman speaking with Chris Hayes this week.
GABRIEL SHERMAN: -- won’t believe the conversation I had with a very prominent Republican today, who literally was saying that they imagine General Kelly and Secretary Mattis have had conversations that if Trump lunged for the nuclear football, what would they do? Would they tackle him, I mean, literally physically restrain him from putting the country at perilous risk?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In this narrative, Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are the guardians of probity, the so-called “Adults in the Room.”
MALE CORRESPONDENT: They have been seen as the real adults.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: But I think having Kelly as the chief of staff, I, and I think it’ll help reinforce the sort of Adults in the Room, including McMaster.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: McMaster, Mattis and, and Tillerson and that those are the, the grown up, you know --
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Axis of adults, as some call them.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Right, the axis the adults, and he’s not listening to them….
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Writing in the New York Review of Books, Author James Mann cautions against the media's use of the phrase “Adults in the Room” because it distracts us from asking other crucial questions about these powerful men. He also says that the phrase, as applied to Trump, is a departure from its classic use in the Capital.
JAMES MANN: Go back to the ‘90s, there were proposals to require improvements in China's human rights situation for China to get any renewals of its trade benefits. The supposed “adults in the room” were the Treasury secretaries, Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, who said, we shouldn't put too much emphasis on human rights, that trade with China was too important. They described people who favored a strong policy on human rights with China as “in need of adult supervision,” like Nancy Pelosi and George Mitchell.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] [LAUGHS]. “Adults” usually meant mainstream views or even just the people I agree with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s the old standard. Now, you write, it isn’t about politics but about temperament, and the adults are the men attempting to rein in President Trump.
JAMES MANN: That’s right, emotionally mature people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There were reports that at least in the first few weeks of the Trump administration, Mattis and Kelly agreed that one or the other should be in the country [LAUGHS] at all times.
JAMES MANN: I've seen reports of that over and over again. The most important example where the adults did get together, really, was late last spring when Trump was about to make his first trip to Europe and the Cabinet officials helped put together a speech in which Trump would reaffirm America's longstanding commitment to the collective defense of Europe, the collective defense of NATO. Trump just plain didn't do it. It took a while for the so-called “Adults” to insist that this was something that the Trump administration really needed to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And at one point during an overseas trip, Mattis recalled a quote he inaccurately attributed to Winston Churchill. I think it was Abba Eban who said it many years ago.
DEFENSE SECRETARY JIM MATTIS: To quote a British observer of us from some years ago, “Bear with us, once we’ve exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”
JAMES MANN: That’s an important quote. There’s another instance a couple of months later where Mattis is out in front of a group of American soldiers. He’s actually on the ground in Jordan.
DEFENSE SECRETARY JIM MATTIS: He says, hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it, of being friendly to one another.
JAMES MANN: There’s an implicit message that this country existed before Trump and it will exist after Trump, and in between the job of the military, but implicitly of the country, is to somehow hold the line.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, let's talk about these adults because this is why we called you. The word implies that these men are measured and well prepared for their roles, at least compared to Trump, but you suggest that the honorific seems to have protected them from proper media scrutiny.
JAMES MANN: We tend to be so absorbed on the adults deflecting some of what Trump does that we pay less attention to what they actually believe. Tillerson has supportive views of Russia. He had close ties to Putin. He really is not someone that you would want in a job where you would want someone with considerable skepticism about Russia and its foreign policy. He has, over the last eight or nine months, done more to carry out Bannon's agenda of cutting back on the administrative state than anyone else. He has allowed the State Department to have its budget cut and be decimated in personnel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what about the other three?
JAMES MANN: These guys were war fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. They place importance, understandably, on winning the wars in which they fought. Mattis, as secretary of defense, McMaster, as national security advisor, pushed Trump a little bit to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. I think that's an outgrowth of their own experiences.
What they lack is experience in dealing with China. Actually, none of them has much experience in dealing with Russia, either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or North Korea and, in fact, most of the old North Korea hands are gone and those positions have not been filled.
JAMES MANN: Throughout most of our history, there's been a concern to preserve civilian control of the military. The underlying assumption is that civilians would have a more balanced view. What's extraordinary about the Trump administration is that three of the top jobs involved in foreign policy are military officers. In the case of Mattis, he's the first guy from the military to serve as secretary of defense since George Marshall.
So we’re going back seven decades. The problem isn't one that the US will be more militaristic in its policies. Over the years, it’s military people who favor [LAUGHS] diplomacy, while too many diplomats favor military action. The, the war in Vietnam, the invasion of Iraq by the George W. Bush administration, the intervention in Libya by the Obama administration, in all of those it's been civilians, not military people, leading the way. So I think that is probably a stereotype that doesn't match the facts.
However, if we somehow assume that because people wear a uniform, they’re wiser, more disciplined than civilians, then I think we’re gonna get into problems with the civilian society that we've developed over a couple of hundred years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You worry that ultimately the adults-in-the-room metaphor could have a pernicious effect on the public mind.
JAMES MANN: We need to be able to assume that civilians are the adults. To have military leaders both be in charge of conducting wars and defending the country and also making the larger decisions about how we use our resources, what's most important for our country gives a role for the military that is greater than we want and I think greater than the military wants.
We choose our political leaders. I think it's not enough to simply say we elect the president and then he gets to appoint the military to the leading positions. It’s civilian leaders, ultimately, who have to answer to the American public.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
JAMES MANN: Thank you, Brooke.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Mann is a Fellow in Residence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's WarCabinet.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, reporting the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico calls for persistence and outrage.