Nine months into the Trump administration, the defense secretary tells senior military leaders to engage with the media — but stay in their lanes.
It’s time to talk. In the age of Trump, senior U.S. military leaders have generally kept a lower public profile than usual, seeking to avoid the hyperactive state of politics and the press. That’s about to change.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis instructed top commanders to speak to the media more freely, Defense One has learned.
The secretary is hoping to end a misperception among some senior leaders that they should keep quiet, in part because he wants them to speak up on the looming budget battle in Congress, according to a senior defense official.
Mattis gave his guidance at Friday’s closed-door Senior Leadership Conference, a Pentagon gathering of generals and admirals that includes the combatant commanders, or COCOMs, who are the senior officers in the U.S. military chain of command.
“Communications is the job of the commander, not just the PAO,” Mattis told a roomful of 4-stars, according to a description of the meeting by Pentagon press secretary Dana White. She offered that description in an email sent Friday to the top public affairs officers of the U.S. military’s combatant commands, including at NATO, in Brussels; Central Command, in Tampa; and Pacific Command, in Hawaii.
“I realize there may be a perception that we have been keeping the media at arm’s length, but that is not the case and we’re doing our best to dispel that rumor and continue to be transparent with our press corps,” White said in the email. “Please communicate to your respective senior leaders that we want them to feel free, even obligated, to speak, in their lane, about their efforts and to use our OSD PA [Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs] team resources to help along the way.”
Defense One learned about the meeting independently last week and later obtained a copy of the email from a second source. On Monday, Defense One contacted White, who explained why the secretary chose to deliver the message, and why now.
"The secretary's top priority is ensuring the warfighter has what he or she needs to win any current or future conflict,” White said. “Operating under a continuing resolution for the ninth consecutive fiscal year, the department has a responsibility to communicate with the American people about what our military needs to stay the most lethal joint force on earth. The media plays a critical role in that conversation.”
Mattis, along with most of the military’s top leaders, has been asking Congress to pass a regular spending bill instead of another continuing resolution, which locks the military’s budget at previous year’s levels and prevents spending on things like new weapons systems and training. Military leaders say a CR would harm the military’s ability to be ready to fight future conflicts.
“I want the Congress back in the driver's seat of budget decisions, not in the spectator's seat of automatic cuts,” Mattis said Monday, speaking at the annual Association of the United States Army convention in Washington. “If we can lay the problem out, in compelling terms, I believe in the U.S. Congress. I believe in them 100 percent, but we've got to lay this out in such a way that in a democracy we bring the American people with this us, and that starts with the U.S. Congress. So we need everyone to make certain that were laying out the problem in a manner that leaves no doubt about the need for what we're asking for, in order to ensure that America's army is at the top of its game.”
“His guidance is to talk,” the senior defense official said. “And he wants people to talk about what they know and why it matters.”
Some leaders have been reluctant to do so, the official said, because they don’t see Mattis talking in the press as much as previous defense secretaries. “I think the [public affairs officers] think that because the secretary doesn’t talk — some of them feel the command signal is, ‘He’s not talking. Should I be talking?’”
Mattis does talk to the press, the official noted, just not on camera as much as his predecessors.
Another problem has been the lack of Defense Department political appointees in office to do some talking. “One reason is you don’t have a lot of politicals in place,” said the senior defense official. “Without the entire team, and a lot of ‘actings’ it makes it difficult and challenging to engage regularly.”
The other hesitation with talking to the press is the media climate itself. “There’s frustration with the media’s relentless desire to sow discord within this administration,” the senior defense official argued, and “something to be said for the nature of media right now, it makes it difficult for some people to engage.”
Mattis made this case to the press corps himself in August, after he and Trump made seemingly contradictory statements about the use of diplomacy with North Korea. “I'll do my best to call it like I see it, but right now, if I say six and the president says half a dozen, they're going to say I disagree with him,” Mattis said. “You know. So let's just get over that.”
Mattis’s instruction to his 4-star leaders comes nine months into Trump’s presidency, amid some of the worst press relations with elected officials in Washington since Watergate. The president continues to bait and berate the American press, especially the White House press corps, including while speaking to U.S. military personnel. It’s a far different tone from how most senior military commanders speak publicly and admirably about the free press, and the military trains rising leaders to engage with media.
At the Pentagon, where the press corps covers everything from war plans, intelligence, and terrorism to military life and the Army’s next rifle purchases, the climate is different and topics generally stay somewhat removed from White House partisan politics. But there are some fears the Trump White House’s anti-media attitudes could bleed into the ranks.
What’s clear is that since the rise of Trump last year, a chilling effect has slowed the flow of information and public appearances by many military and defense leaders who feel obligated not to wade into the politics of the government’s civilian leadership.
That hesitancy dates back into the 2016 presidential campaign year. In March 2016, shortly after Trump first called the NATO alliance “obsolete,” a Defense One reporter asked Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford if he agreed with the characterization. Dunford rejected it and staunchly defended NATO, but without knowing Trump had made the comment. The general was upset; he felt he was being unfairly positioned against the presidential candidate and a potential future commander in chief. Since then, senior officers generally have remained quieter, especially when visiting Washington. The number of regular appearances at public policy events or press conferences in the Pentagon briefing room, which once were regular and expected of key 4-star generals visiting town, have trickled to a slow drip.
Also in March, the top U.S. admiral, Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson, warned roughly 1,200 top Navy personnel against “sharing too much information publicly” when talking to the media — which he encourages — and to “avoid events that are primarily for marketing, and that don't make an intellectual contribution to warfighting.”
Some of the hush has followed Mattis’s own choices. The defense secretary has curtailed regular televised press conferences and cut the number of reporters he takes on his travels, upsetting the press corps. Mattis told reporters he chooses to avoid live, on-camera press conferences in the Pentagon briefing room because he doesn’t like the artificial performance of it. He prefers more casual, and what he feels are often deeper, conversations with reporters gathered informally around him, and wants to avoid the image of looking like he’s going against the president.
“I prefer — I'm from the West. I like — I like informal — you know, if you get into discussions...you sit there like dutiful students,” Mattis said in August, of the briefing room. “I'm up there like the professor knows everything,” he scoffed.
“I don't see you all as adversaries. I see you as, at times, allowed to be more skeptical than I can be in a leadership role, and skepticism is part of a healthy — keeping the organization healthy. And I think I do better here [than] when people are trying to calculate each word [recorded on camera in the briefing room] because I want — I'm on TV now, and you're on TV, and all that sort of thing.”
Under the previous four defense secretaries for Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, each began their terms by taking a full press contingent overseas to visit troops in war zones — often within days after taking office — and meet with world leaders, as a regular order of business. Mattis curtailed that practice, limiting access on some trips to only a few journalists, and then not inviting radio or televisions pools, or removing journalists from travel rosters on lengthy multi-country trips just days before a scheduled departure. White and Mattis’s staffers say they’re still learning on the job and have pledged to accommodate more journalists. They took a plane-full on a visit to Afghanistan in April, but for last month only took a handful of reporters to the war zone — an unprecedented restriction. Meanwhile other commanders outside of Washington, like Central Command’s Gen. Joseph Votel, opened up and began talking journalists with him regularly on battlefield tours.
And over in Foggy Bottom, the State Department press corps has had worse complaints. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has declined to take any journalists on some trips abroad and rarely has taken questions in a press conference setting. But Tillerson is new to Washington, whereas Mattis has familiar relationships with many journalists dating back to the Iraq War and later as commanding general of U.S. Central Command, one of the nine combatant commands.
On Thursday, White was asked in a briefing how the Pentagon was being more transparent, as defense officials had promised they would. She replied that when Mattis’s team discovered the actual number of troops in Afghanistan was higher than the military was telling the public — roughly 11,000 instead of 8,000 — he ordered the military to devise a new, more accurate accounting system.
“That is a demonstration of our commitment to transparency,” she said.
The text of White’s Oct. 6 email follows:
Subject: Engaging with the media and SecDef (UNCLASSIFIED)
Today during the Senior Leader Conference, Secretary Mattis spoke to your senior leadership about engaging with the media. I realize there may be a perception that we have been keeping the media at arm’s length, but that is not the case and we’re doing our best to dispel that rumor and continue to be transparent with our press corps.
Beginning with the DoD Communication Playbook we sent you earlier this week, and a plan for more frequent on-camera press engagements, we will lead from the front with this effort. But we need your support to spread the word to the field as well.
As you review the playbook, understand this is a living document and we welcome your feedback and suggestions. Please be prepared to discuss this during next Wednesday’s SVTC.
As the Secretary said today at the SLC, “communications is the job of the commander, not just the PAO.” Please communicate to your respective senior leaders that we want them to feel free, even obligated, to speak, in their lane, about their efforts and to use our OSD PA team resources to help along the way.
Thank you for all the great work you do,