Amongst the chaos and the tweets, some of the more reassuring steps of the first 100 days of the Donald Trump presidency were the appointments of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster — the so-called “axis of adults” — to the three most consequential national security positions in the U.S. government. It is easy to grade their performance on a curve and just be thankful our security is not in the hands of Michael Flynn, John Bolton, and Rudy Giuliani (contemplate that for a moment). But we should not fall into that trap. Instead, we should evaluate their performance based on the traditional standard we have come to expect from officials serving in these immensely important roles. Based on that standard, Mattis is off to a strong start, though could use improvement in some areas. Tillerson has established a strong rapport with Trump, but is failing quite badly as the leader of the Sate Department. And McMaster has done okay in seizing control of the process, but that has yet to translate into effective coordination across the U.S. government — his primary responsibility.
Positive reviews at the Pentagon
Overall, Mattis is off to a strong start. He was one of the few Trump nominees to breeze through the confirmation process, bringing him into the job in a politically strong position as perhaps the most politically indispensable cabinet official in the administration. He has used that leverage to act independently in conducting well-reviewed trips to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, providing a vital message of reassurance while the administration was still getting its sea legs in the early weeks. Perhaps his most important moment came after the chemical weapons attack in Syria earlier this month, after which the Pentagon was quickly able to provide the president with a clear set of military options that led to a well-executed operation.
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