Former secretary of defense Jim Mattis, a Marine’s Marine, has traded in his combat boots for tap shoes. On Tuesday, he was at the Council on Foreign Relations talking about his best-selling new book, “Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead” (co-written — full disclosure — with my friend Bing West), and tap-dancing around questions about President Trump.

His entire book, with its praise for U.S. allies and insistence on the importance of reading (“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”), reads, as Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in the Atlantic, like a giant “subtweet” of the president. Numerous questioners at the council, as at other stops on Mattis’s book tour, tried and failed to get him to turn subtext into text. As he has repeatedly done, Mattis again made clear that he doesn’t want to make the job of current officials “more difficult by a former secretary of defense speaking now, from what I would call the cheap seats.”

Asked to comment on Trump, Mattis instead commented on the poisonous partisanship that pervades the entire political process. Instead of fighting with one another, he suggested, “The majority of us need to just roll up our sleeves and get to work governing.”

Mattis did say that his silence won’t be forever — “when the time’s right to speak out about politics or strategy, I’ll speak out” — but he refused to speculate on what the right time would be to publicly criticize a president whom he obviously does not esteem. (Goldberg writes, in a masterpiece of understatement, that Mattis’s “aides and friends say he found the president to be of limited cognitive ability, and of generally dubious character.”)

Mattis’s reticence has engendered understandable frustration from those who argue that he has a responsibility to more fully explain why the president, whose policies led Mattis to resign at the end of 2018, isn’t fit for reelection. The grousing about Mattis reminds me of someone else who has faced similar criticism this summer.



That would be former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. His congressional testimony was a source of frustration for Democrats who wished that he would simply come out and say what he obviously believes: that Trump was guilty of obstruction of justice and was only saved from indictment by a Justice Department policy conferring immunity from prosecution on the president. Instead, Mueller hid behind double negatives and legal jargon — saying, for example, “that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.”

To some extent, I share the general frustration with Mattis and Mueller. I, too, wish they would speak out more directly against a president who I believe (and I believe they believe) represents a clear and present danger to our democracy. But I understand why they refuse to do so, and I find their unfashionable silence refreshing and admirable.

Both Mueller (born 1944) and Mattis (born 1950) are throwbacks to an earlier age when partisanship was less bitter, devotion to duty more common and reticence among public servants more valued than it is today. Both spent their careers in institutions — the Justice Department and FBI for Mueller, the Marine Corps for Mattis — that instill a strict ethos of nonpartisanship. In fact, although Mueller did not become a career officer, he got his start as a Marine just like Mattis. Both men have a visceral aversion to anything that smacks of politics. Asked at the council whether he might add the title of “politician” to that of “soldier-statesman,” Mattis laughed incredulously.

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If more people shared their attitude, America would be a better place. The question is whether their above-the-fray stance is the right one to take in a country where rabid partisanship has become the norm and the president is the partisan in chief. Should you fight fire with fire or try to douse the flames with cool, calm nonchalance?

I’m honestly not sure. As a columnist myself, I’m prone to calling out the president’s egregious misconduct in blunt language. (Perhaps you’ve noticed?) I wish more Republican grandees — such as former president George W. Bush, former vice president Dick Cheney, former Cabinet members, and current and former lawmakers — would be more outspoken in denouncing Trump for trashing not just conservative principles but the norms of American democracy.

But there are good reasons why former FBI directors and former generals hesitate to join the fray. They, after all, speak not just for themselves but implicitly for institutions that must remain apolitical if our experiment in self-governance is to survive. So I am inclined to cut Mattis and Mueller a great deal of slack. They have done their duty: Mattis by trying to contain Trump’s erratic foreign-policy impulses, Mueller by compiling a solid case that Trump broke the law. They aren’t obligated to offer commentary, too. There are plenty of other people who are doing that job already.

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