‘Exasperated’ Mattis Fended Off Trump’s Demand To Assassinate Assad, Woodward Book Claims

Martinez Monsivais/Pool via REUTERS

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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  • Bob Woodward’s book alleges President Donald Trump wanted to assassinate Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, but Defense Secretary James Mattis refused to entertain the idea.
  • The episode is allegedly one of several involving Mattis described in Woodward’s book.
  • Mattis also reportedly said Trump has the understanding of world affairs of a “fifth or sixth grader.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis parried an alleged spur-of-the-moment demand by President Donald Trump to assassinate Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad as punishment for a chemical weapons attack last year, Bob Woodward claims in his new book about the Trump presidency.

After Assad launched a suspected sarin gas attack in Syria’s Idlib province in April 2017, Trump called Mattis and said he wanted to take out the Syrian dictator, the veteran political reporter writes in his forthcoming book “Fear: Trump in the White House.”

“Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump said, according to Woodward.

Mattis reportedly assured Trump that he would look into it, but then told a senior aide: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.”

At Mattis’s direction, national security officials allegedly drew up options for a more conventional response, including the cruise missile strike on a Syrian military installation that Trump eventually approved.

Excerpts of the 448-page “Fear” were published Tuesday by The Washington Post, where Woodward is an associate editor. Woodward writes the book is the product of hundreds of hours of interviews with participants and witnesses that were conducted on “deep background,” meaning the author would not reveal the source of the information. The account is backed by meeting notes, diaries and government documents, he says.

The anecdote about Trump’s reaction to the chemical attack is one of several in the book that describes an “exasperated” Mattis having to dismiss or slow-play requests from an impulsive boss with little understanding of military strategy or operations. During a National Security Council meeting in January, Trump allegedly dismissed the significance of the U.S. military presence in South Korea and questioned why Washington was spending defense resources in the region in the first place.

“We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mattis replied to the president, according to Woodward.

After that meeting, “Mattis was particularly exasperated and alarmed, telling close associates that the president acted like — and had the understanding of — ‘a fifth- or sixth-grader,'” Woodward writes.

In another episode, Mattis reportedly corrected Trump when the president falsely suggested the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain was a coward for winning early release as a prisoner of war because of his father’s status as a U.S. Navy admiral.

“No, Mr. President, I think you’ve got it reversed,” Mattis said, according to Woodward, and went on to explain to Trump that McCain, who died Aug. 25, refused to be released early and was tortured over five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. (RELATED: Gens Mattis, Kelly Escort Cindy McCain To Pay Her Final Respects At Vietnam Memorial)

“Oh, okay,” Trump replied, according to Woodward’s account.

Until Woodward’s book, Mattis had not been the subject of reporting that described him as saying unflattering things about Trump’s abilities, in contrast to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, one of Mattis’s closest allies in the administration.

Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” during a July 2017 meeting of national security officials, permanently rupturing an already tenuous relationship between the president and his top diplomat. The White House replaced Tillerson with current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March.

The Pentagon has not responded to requests for comment about Mattis’s supposed comments on Trump.

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