Mattis on Trump: Guess where I earned my spurs, pal?

James Mattis doesn’t get mad, and he doesn’t get even — he just plays to win. As a guest at last night’s Al Smith Dinner in New York City, a traditionally irreverent affair, Mattis joked about Donald Trump’s reported comment on Wednesday that Mattis was the “world’s most overrated general.” Mattis, who had been very circumspect about offering any public criticism of his former boss before yesterday, took aim at Trump’s controversial Vietnam War deferment in response. “I earned my spurs on the battlefield,” the former Defense Secretary noted, “and Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor.”

Game on?

Ouch. Democrats had raised Trump’s deferment issue to paint him as a privileged elite in the 2016 election cycle to little effect, but that barb coming from someone of Mattis’ reputation carries a bite. Mattis largely refrained from any criticism of the administration or its policies, but he had a few other personal remarks about Trump to make at the dinner, although the rest of it seemed more in line with the traditional Al Smith Dinner irreverence:

“So I would just tell you, I’m honored to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress,” Mattis said at the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York. “So I guess I’m the Meryl Streep of generals and frankly that sounds pretty good to me.”

“And, you do have to admit, between me and Meryl, at least we’ve had some victories,” he added. …

Mattis went on to joke that “the only person on the military that Mr. Trump doesn’t think is overrated” is “Colonel Sanders,” the founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food restaurant chain.

One has to wonder whether the White House got the message last night. Picking a fight with Mattis, especially with cheap-shot comments about his legendary career from enlisted Marine to Commandant of the Corps, will not go unanswered. In fact, one has to wonder how Trump thought they might go unanswered with someone of Mattis’ mien.

That’s not to say that Trump’s political opponents were all laughing or cheering at Mattis’ counterpunch. As Twitchy noted last night in the wake of Mattis’ remarks, some wondered why Mattis took so long to criticize Trump and why he didn’t go farther. CNN’s Susan Hennessey put it the most bluntly:

“Undercut the gravity”? Oh, please. The moment Mattis wants to offer a serious, substantive, and direct criticism of Trump and his policies, CNN and every other outlet will be there with bated breath, custom graphics, theme music, and chyrons scrolling LEGENDARY GENERAL LOWERS THE BOOM ON TRUMP. In those circumstances, the media will treat Mattis as the reincarnation of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and perhaps Moses at Mount Sinai all in one. Mattis’ gravity has never been in question. The media’s gravity, on the other hand …

So why hasn’t Mattis spoken out in such a fashion? He has an old-fashioned sense of honor, for one thing, and also likely doesn’t want to be used as a political punching bag by anyone — not Trump, not Trump’s allies, and not Trump’s opponents either. Mattis has served his country his whole life and now likely feels he’s earned a little time out of the arena. He can fight his own battles, but Mattis has made it clear that he’s not interested in fighting anyone else’s for them. And woe betide the person who tries to make him do so on any terms but his own.

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