The Mattis Statement seems to me—and Your Humble Blogger may have got hold of the wrong end of the stick entirely, of course—to give Mark Esper an extraordinary amount of leverage.
The President (the only one we have at the moment) could still fire the guy, of course. I wouldn’t bet money on it. But Secretary Esper now has the option, if he wants to, not just of criticizing the President but of signing on to an existing public document—one that is already the subject of discussion and attention, and is frankly devastating. Cabinet members always have the option of resigning and making their complaints public, of course. It’s rare, but it happens. It’s unusual—very, very unusual—for someone from the military leadership to make the kind of accusation that Mr. Mattis makes. If Secretary Esper were to resign and say that he agrees with it, the political consequences would be substantial, inside the military and in the states and on Capital Hill, and even in the courts.
I would think that a lot of people in the Republican Party and its aligned media would want to prevent that happening. That’s where I could be very wrong, of course—the Party has been doing lots of things that go against what look to me like plain political incentives. But where people may well have welcomed a division that united one Party against the other, with the police and the military on their united front, those people should rightly fear a united Democratic Party’s front bolstered with significant fractions of the police, military and conservative organizations. So far, the party that is having difficulty keeping its coalition together is theirs, not mine. But the cracks at this point are not wide—Mr. Esper has the potential to break it open.
I want to emphasize that this leverage does not derive from the Secretary necessarily agreeing with Mr. Mattis on the merits. There have been hints that he does, and I am eager to believe that he does, but the leverage exists either way. Nor does that leverage necessarily have to be used on the specific policy involved—Mr. Esper could use it against military suppression of civilian dissent, or he could use it to demand that Jared Kushner transfer fifty million dollars to a Cayman Islands account under his control. If you hand somebody leverage, they get to decide how to use it.
I hope that what happens is that Our Only President gets rolled, again, like he has almost every time he has gone against his Party. I hope the military stands down, that the protests continue—and in the absence of further exacerbation, they are even more peaceful than the current almost-entirely-peaceful protests—and that we further establish a line that can’t be easily crossed. I don’t know that it will happen, but I hope it does. But even if it does, it won’t be a victory for the nation.
Think about what it means that Secretary Esper has this much leverage at this moment. Think of how appallingly mismanaged the White House has to have been, to hand that leverage over. Think of all the power the President has given away by breaking promises, by lying, by exposing his subordinates to scorn and ridicule, by ridiculing them himself, by his tremendous ignorance of the details or even the broad outlines of policy questions, by his dependence on the accolades of broadcasters with their own commercial interests at stake, by his outrageous inability to judge personnel, by his inability to follow up and retain focus on anything. Leaving aside my disagreement with his Party’s policy goals and preferences and priorities, it’s dangerous—very, very dangerous—for the President of the United States to be so profoundly weak, and for the office of the President to be so profoundly weakened.
Because of course it is the leaders with the greatest weaknesses who resort to the most drastic measures, to prop up what power is still available to them.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,