The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir by John Bolton:
Mattis pushed relentlessly for his innocuous options. While Pence tried to help me out, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin strongly backed Mattis, although he manifestly had no idea what he was talking about. Nikki Haley explained that her husband was in the National Guard, so we should try to avoid military casualties. When McGahn against sought more information on the targets, Mattis flatly refused to provide it, even though McGahn was still asking for it only for his legal analysis, not to act as a targeteer, which was outside his purview (as were Mnuchin’s and Haley’s comments). It was stunning. McGahn told me later he didn’t challenge Mattis directly because he didn’t want to disrupt the meeting further; he was later able to get what he needed for his legal opinion. The best we could say, as Dunford phrased it, was that Trump had decided to strike “the heart of the [Syrian chemical-weapons] enterprise.” We would be firing over twice as many missiles as in 2017, and at more physical targets. Whether that would result in anything more than a few additional buildings’ being destroyed, however, was a very different question.
Even if the President had decided on the optimal strike, the decision-making process was completely unacceptable. We’d experienced a classic bureaucratic ploy by a classic bureaucrat, structuring the options and information to make only his options look acceptable in order to get his way. Of course, Trump didn’t help by not being clear about what he wanted, jumping randomly from one question to another, and generally frustrating efforts to have a coherent discussion about the consequences of making one choice rather than another. The media portrayed the meeting, the details of which were promptly leaked, as Mattis prevailing because of his “moderation.” In fact, the spirit of Stonewall Jackson lived in Mattis and his acolytes. (“There stands Jackson like a stone wall,” as the Confederates said at the First Battle of Bull Run.) Achieving a better outcome, however, would require more bureaucratic in-fighting and a further NSC meeting, thereby losing more critical time. That was a non-starter, and Mattis knew it. Indeed, Syria had already moved equipment and materials away from several targets we hoped to destroy. I was satisfied I had acted as an honest broker, but Mattis had been playing with marked cards. He knew how Trump responded in such situations far better than I did. As McGahn often whispered to me during our overlapping White House tenures, reflecting the contrast with our earlier experiences in government, “This is not the Bush Administration.”