Defense Secretary James Mattis’ stunning resignation just days before Christmas has set the stage for the next installment of Washington’s favorite parlor game — predicting Cabinet posts. Doing so while listening to Dean Martin’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and sipping eggnog is a unique twist.
Adding additional intrigue and uncertainty, the President’s seemingly unilateral decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. A call which has been widely disparaged by those who, contend correctly, that the departure of American military power will cede influence in the region to Iran, Russia, Turkey and Hezbollah. A decision which has been vociferously and bluntly condemned by many of President Trump’s most ardent supporters and potential Defense secretaries.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is perhaps the president’s most vocal, and certainly media savvy backer in the Senate. Graham is an ardent defense hawk, and a persuasive critic of the Syria withdrawal, comparing the plan to Obama’s “cut and run” debacle in Iraq, and the ill-advised Afghanistan drawdown.
In a speech on the Senate floor Graham said President Trump “declaring that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has been defeated in Syria is fake news.” The senator doubled down on Twitter: “It is not FAKE NEWS that Russia, Iran, and Assad are unhappy about our decision to withdraw from Syria. They are ECSTATIC!”
Prediction: Graham is a non-starter. He prefers to chair the powerful Senate Judiciary committee.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is another of President Trump’s most steadfast allies in the august upper chamber. He is a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, and at only 41 years of age serves on both the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees’ and was touted as CIA director.
Cotton has publicly condemned President Trump’s Syria plan, signing a letter from Senate Republicans warning that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria would “renew and embolden” ISIS and sponsors of terror in the region. The entreaty included an implicit call for the president to reconsider his decision to retreat from Syria.
Prediction: Cotton has a long career ahead. He will remain in the Senate.
Gen. David Petraeus has been largely silent on the Syria announcement, suggesting he is ready, willing and able to accept the nomination. Being named secretary of Defense would be a remarkable redemption for the former CIA director and storied military commander once touted as a potential presidential candidate. Petraeus’ fall from grace was swift and brutal. He served two year’s probation and paid a $100,000 fine for sharing classified information with his biographer and lover, Paula Broadwell. Oh, he also lied to the FBI. It was a breathtaking scandal.
Make no mistake. Petraeus, if nominated, would face robust examination by the Senate. But he would likely be confirmed, perhaps with a deciding vote from Vice President Pence.
Prediction: If President Trump can look past the general’s foibles and convictions, he is the most likely nominee.
The Defense job was reportedly offered to Gen. Jack Keene before it was offered to Mattis, but he turned it down. Unless the president can appeal to the Vietnam veteran’s stoic sense of duty, it is unlikely Keene would about face. Additionally, the 75-year-old Fox News contributor called the Syria pullout a “huge strategic mistake.” The general went on to say that President Trump would “come to regret” the decision.
Soon after the Mattis resignation, Keene stated to National Public Radio, “I don’t intend to go back into public service.”
Prediction: Keene will not take the job if offered.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates has been mum on Syria. Coates is reportedly respected on the Hill and by advisors at 1600 Pennsylvania for keeping his profile low — unlike his overtly political predecessor James Clapper. However, the former Indiana senator may not be in the president’s good books, after his public negative reaction to news that Trump had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington.
Prediction: Coates would accept and face a relatively painless confirmation process if nominated.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is my darkest of dark horses. (My last dark horse prediction, Heather Nauert, was nominated U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.) Hutchison — presently the United States permanent representative to NATO — is an unlikely yet potentially appealing choice for the White House. Hutchinson served in the Senate from 1993 to 2013 before running unsuccessfully for Texas governor.
The appeal for President Trump? He could appoint the first ever female secretary of Defense. Additionally, the former senator had a simple confirmation for the NATO ambassadorship via voice vote. Thirdly, she is from Texas, a deep-red Republican state with a significant military presence.
Predictably, Bailey Hutchinson has been silent on the Syria withdrawal and has maintained a very low profile in her current role. She is notoriously difficult to work for, but then again that is her staff’s problem, not the president’s.
Prediction: If President Trump wants to stump the chattering classes, KBH would tick all the boxes and sail through Senate confirmation.
Greg Keeley (@DreadnaughtUSA) is managing partner of Dreadnaught and retired lieutenant commander who served in both the U.S. and Australian Navies. LCDR Keeley also served as a NATO & ISAF spokesman, and as senior adviser to the vice chairman of the House Armed Service Committee and chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee in the U.S. Congress.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.