After James Mattis flew across the country nearly three years ago to interview with Donald Trump for the Secretary of Defense post, the retired Marine Corps general was sure he had flunked the test. “I certainly won’t be hearing back from those guys,” Mattis later recalled to his staff in one of many memorable meetings documented by Guy Snodgrass, his chief speechwriter and the author of Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis. During the interview, Mattis “disagreed with the president-elect on every one of the main points that he raised.” That conflict “presaged a fundamental chasm, one that would only widen with time,” Snodgrass wrote.
Holding the Line, due out on Tuesday from Penguin Random House, is, if anything, a story of widening chasms: between Mattis and Trump; between Mattis and the other members of Trump’s Cabinet; and, eventually, between Snodgrass and the boss he revered. A former naval aviator with more than two decades of military experience, Snodgrass was prepared to finally spend extended time with his family in early 2017 when an assistant to Mattis called. Like his boss, Snodgrass was not expecting to land a role in the Trump administration, but by April of that year, he was working out of the Pentagon as Mattis’ speechwriter and eventually his director of communications.
That role provided a front-seat view of how Mattis led the Pentagon through Trump’s turbulent first months in office, when policy changes were issued via tweet, senior staffing roles went unfilled, and American foreign policy, after years of alliance-building in the aftermath of World War II, seemed to be unwinding. All the while, Mattis did his best to keep at bay the controversies of Trump’s Washington, even as it became clear to Snodgrass that the grizzled general would not be long for the job. Snodgrass, too, was on his way out, recalling in the book that his “status on Mattis’ team continued to ebb and flow in sync with Mattis’s relationship to Trump.”
Eventually, a dispute with Mattis’s chief of staff brought Snodgrass’ time in the Pentagon to a close. Now, the publication of Snodgrass’ book, following months of legal wrangling with the Pentagon censors over the manuscript, has cemented his banishment from Mattis’ inner circle. “Mr. Snodgrass was a junior staffer who took notes in some meetings but played no role in decision making,” Mattis’ assistant, Candace Currier, told Politico in a statement. “His choice to write a book reveals an absence of character.”
I spoke by phone with Snodgrass—who maintains obvious respect for Mattis—a day before the scheduled release of his book. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Mother Jones: At what point did you decide to write a book documenting your experience working for Mattis?
Guy Snodgrass: I settled on writing a book a few months after I had left the office. As I reflected upon the experience I had—and then talking to parents, friends, and family who know [me] well—the resounding theme from almost everyone was: What an incredible experience that I had while serving alongside Secretary Mattis, that I had an opportunity to see and experience and make a difference on things that most people will never really, truly, be aware of.
Wouldn’t it be great to codify that experience and share it, so that in today’s world—where there’s so much disinformation that’s being floated about—[we’d] actually have a firsthand account of what it was really like behind the scenes and what it was really like to serve alongside Secretary Mattis? I decided in late fall 2018 that I would start on the project. Once Secretary Mattis stepped out of office in December 2018, the following month in January—I hadn’t yet then started writing the book—but that’s when I reached out to Mattis to let him know.
MJ: Mattis’ exit was not a huge surprise to you because, as you write in the book, he had been planning to leave for some time. The policy disagreement he had with Trump over the withdrawal of troops from Syria seemed like a pretext for him to leave.
GS: That’s a fair characterization. It was around the summer of 2018 when I was walking toward Mattis’ office. Even when he’s on the phone with world leaders or having a high-level meeting, he tends to have the door to his office open. I popped in and was talking to the scheduler. I was going to ask a few questions about the events we had going on, and she admonished me for being too loud in the hallway. When I asked her what was going on, she said that he was meeting with [then-White House Chief of Staff] General [John] Kelly and that they were discussing exit plans. Mattis had already made the decision, months in advance of his actual departure, to leave the administration, but then Kelly was going to stay on.
MJ: When the book was initially announced, your publisher said that you relied on “meticulous notes” assembled while at the Pentagon. This language was later removed from the book’s description, and your attorney, Mark Zaid, has said that this language was inaccurate. If not “meticulous notes,” what did you rely on while writing the book to support the quotes and other characterizations?
GS: Mark Zaid stated that the publisher asserted that I had relied on “meticulous notes,” and they had put that as part of the book’s announcement. That caused consternation with the Pentagon. What I did was certainly nothing different than what Secretary Mattis and some of these other senior leaders did.
As his communications director and chief speechwriter, I was in a lot of the high-level meetings and decision-making meetings. I’m there mainly making sure that I’m recording his language, recording the way he says things—in many cases, verbatim. Because [in writing] for him—whether it was the next day, the next week, or the next month—being able to use his own words becomes very important.
Part of my job was to ensure that I made his life and his job as easy as possible. The last thing you’d want is to provide him with a speech or a letter to a foreign leader or a strategic document that’s so far from what his voice is or what he had said that he has to take an extraordinary amount of time to correct it. It was absolutely a normal, ongoing part of my job to take those kind of notes. That being said, there’s a difference with professional notes, which are verbatim, sometimes in very sensitive settings. I periodically would destroy those. You put them in a burn bag or you get rid of them.
I also kept my own personal journals, where at the end of a day when I was at home, or on the weekends, I would reflect on these meetings while it was still fresh in my mind. I wanted to make sure I captured it. While I was working for him, while I knew at the time that I was on my way upward and onward in the US Navy, I did in the back of my mind say, “Twenty years from now, this would be a fascinating experience to reflect on what I’ve learned and share with those who come behind me.”
MJ: A key relationship that you emphasize is the partnership between the so-called “adults in the room”—referring to Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, and national security adviser HR McMaster. But Mattis seemed to sour on McMaster. You write, “Mattis’ failure to strengthen McMaster’s position diminished one of his most important allies in the White House—and we needed all the friends we could get.” Why do you think Mattis was so frustrated with McMaster, even though they shared many similar views on policy and similar frustrations with Trump?
GS: Even when senior leaders have an overall alignment in their viewpoints, there’s always going to be differences of opinion on the best way to achieve that. When you look at that period of time, HR McMaster—very close to the center of the administration, President Trump—had a very different perspective than those who were located further away in the administration, be it Secretary of State Tillerson or Secretary of Defense Mattis.
McMaster in particular had a strong view that he wanted to be the nexus of information going into and out of the president, but also to help align and coordinate the efforts, which, when you think of it from a wide lens, that makes perfect sense. But for someone like Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, interacting with someone who is an actively-serving, three-star Army general, that perhaps subconsciously affected their relationship. Case in point: When HR would talk to Mattis, he would always call him, “Secretary Mattis.” But when Mattis would speak to HR, he called him by his initials, “H.R.”
Mattis and Tillerson felt that McMaster had a heavy hand at the National Security Council, and so they were fighting against that. Sometimes, in the heat of that battle, you lose sight of the bigger picture.
MJ: Tillerson is one recently-departed Trump administration official who has come out and criticized the president quite harshly since leaving the State Department. Why do you think Mattis is so reluctant to speak frankly about his time in the Trump administration? He obviously sees no problem criticizing previous presidents. Why not this one, who he clearly has so much to say about privately? Why not publicly?
GS: There are a few reasons. If you’re Mattis, you spent four decades of time in uniform as a Marine Corps officer. I think that he feels very strongly about the loyalty you owe to your boss, and in this case, I believe he feels very strongly about the loyalty he has to Donald Trump.
You would have to ask Mattis specifically. I know he has stated various reasons for this, but I think that he feels he owes the president his loyalty.
MJ: Your book contains many examples of Mattis’ compassion and professionalism. A quote from him adorns the jacket of your book. Does it bother you to see him dismiss the book so harshly? His aide said, in so many words, that you surrendered you honor by writing this book.
GS: I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed by that statement for a number of reasons. James Mattis does not have the ability to define my character, define my integrity, or define my honor. That’s something I personally get to do. Frankly, we all do it because actions speak louder than words ever can.
If you think about where we are as a society right now, it’s such a highly polarized environment. There’s a lot of misinformation. I don’t believe taking a first-hand account and sharing that with the American public in the interest of openness and transparency is a bad thing. I think Americans need that in order to make informed decisions about the future of our nation.
He has already admitted that he hasn’t read the book, he doesn’t intend to read the book. But he’s willing to pass judgment without knowing what it’s in it. That was the part that was probably most disheartening to me.
MJ: You helped write the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy, which orients our national security posture away from the Middle East and toward near-peer rivals like China and Russia. In the past months, with Iran and Syria dominating headlines, we’ve seen an increasingly significant focus on the Middle East. Does this indicate something wrong with the Pentagon’s strategy or with Trump’s approach?
GS: What this represents is the lack of a national strategy. You can publish a national security strategy and you can publish a national defense strategy, but those strategies are a hallucination if you don’t take the actions required to put them into place and fully enact them. That’s what you’re seeing right now. It’s one of the reasons I feel so passionate about this project. It’s incredibly dangerous for America’s national security to have a chaotic administration or a chaotic administrative environment.
It’s not like there’s a well-thought-out strategy that’s simply being enacted as we go along. This is just reacting to the news of the day, it’s issuing policy decisions via tweet that catch the State Department, the Department of Defense, other large organizations completely off-balance. When you behave in that way, you undercut your own administration’s ability to accomplish the mission and to accomplish the strategy, but you also endanger America’s position on the world stage.
Just as we’ve seen in the last few weeks with our spur-of-the-moment announcement that we’re leaving Syria, the frantic military movement to make that happen, and suddenly now we’re going to stick in and protect the oilfields. And as I read in the news today and yesterday, we are going to push more troops back into Syria. It’s all over the map.
If I’m China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea, I’m giddy with excitement at what I’m seeing from America now because we’re disjointed. We are distracted with a lot of internal power dynamics, politics struggles. We’re inward, as opposed to looking outward, which is going to damage us for decades to come.
MJ: Early in the book you write, “I could think of no other military officer more universally respected by members of the armed services than Mattis was.” That was the view then. Do you still share that opinion of Mattis now?
GS: Largely, I do. There are a small handful of names, whether it’s because of their own battlefield prowess or their intellectual capability. Two that certainly jump to mind who have been on the public stage recently are Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who is fairly active in the media space, and then, of course, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. But I think, as I relay in the book, he’s a person like the rest of us.
He just happens to be an incredibly dedicated public servant and someone who has mastered the ability to have self-discipline that still amazes me to this day. He could be laser-focused on the task at hand and he would focus on that. As we look back on his time in office, of course, he deserves to be scrutinized. We all do. I believe professionals invite scrutiny. And I don’t think he’ll ever shy away from that fact. Whether you’re left-leaning, right-leaning, or right down the middle and fairly apolitical, I think all of us can look at the service he provided and be very appreciative of what he did for the nation.
MJ: Mattis had three main goals as defense secretary: increasing lethality and readiness, strengthening partnerships and alliances, and reforming the Pentagon’s business practices. How successful do you think he and the department have been at implementing them?
GS: The grade would be poor. I would not lay that at Mattis’ feet, nor would I lay it at the feet of the men and women of the department, per se. You can have the best intentions in the world, but if you don’t have the support of the administration, if you don’t have the environment in which you can actually enact those, you’ll find that the best-laid plans are just that.
It goes down to that famous quote that “plans are worthless but planning is indispensable.” We did a lot of planning, and we created a strategy. We restored a budget. We had grand designs to audit the entire department, but within that audit, we had looked for about $120 billion worth of savings over five years. By the time I was walking out the door, then-Deputy Secretary [Patrick] Shanahan was hoping to get something just on the order of $10-20 billion of savings over five years.
We’re in significant danger of letting the needs of the immediate day-to-day overtake our strategic capabilities. That’s so dangerous, not just for the military, but for America and for our national security.