Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, James Mattis
Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, John Kelly, H.R. McMaster, James Mattis; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

The timeworn metaphor has been used and reused ever since the earliest days of the Trump era, when Donald Trump was first putting together his cabinet. On December 4, after he named James Mattis to be his defense secretary, the website Politico asserted that “there’s finally an adult in the room.” In January, as Rex Tillerson was being confirmed as secretary of state, Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told his colleagues, “To me, Mr. Tillerson is an adult who’s been around.” In February, during Trump’s first visit to Mexico, the Financial Times quoted one source as saying that Tillerson and John Kelly (then secretary of homeland security) “represent the adult wing of the new regime.”1

Before long, the metaphor became a collective one: a small group of officials within the Trump foreign-policy team represented “the adults” or “the grownups in the room.” The membership in the club changed slightly from time to time. At first, the “adults” honorific was most commonly applied to the threesome of Tillerson, Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. This summer, after Trump brought in Kelly to be his White House chief of staff, Kelly became not only a member but the leading figure in the Adults club, while, gradually, Tillerson’s problems and increasing marginalization as secretary of state have made him less central to the group.

Phrases like “the adults” or “the grownups in the room” seem on the surface to carry intuitive meanings but raise all sorts of questions that deserve scrutiny. What does it mean to be an “adult” in Washington in general, or, in particular, under Donald Trump? What policies do the “adults” favor? Where do they come from, and what do they believe? Most importantly, what is the significance of the fact that most of Trump’s so-called grownups come from the military? To answer such questions, it helps to look at the history, both of the way the idea of “adults” has been used in Washington in the past and of the way military officers in the US have served in top civilian jobs.

The notion that some officials are “adults” or “the grownups in the room” is an old Washington trope dating back decades before the arrival of Donald Trump. It is linked to an opposing metaphor: in Washington parlance, others are said to be “in need of adult supervision.” These phrases go to the heart of the way those who work in Washington operate, see themselves, and, above all, talk about themselves. Washington insider newsletters like The Nelson Report and Washington columnists like The New York Times’s Thomas Friedman purvey the notion that some people are “adults” or “grownups” and others are in need of “adult supervision.” The phrases were meant to imply a judgment about an individual’s character or behavior: some people were deemed to be mature, while others were merely being juvenile.

Before Trump, this Washington lingo was usually a cover for policy differences. The “adults” were those who favored certain policies or approaches; those in need of “supervision” were the opponents of such policies. Thus, the metaphors amounted to a verbal sleight-of-hand, transforming political judgments into personal ones. Other, more neutral adjectives could usually have been applied to those who were approvingly called “adults” (“pragmatists,” “centrists,” and “moderates” come to mind), but the “adults” metaphor added an extra bit of sneer and insult to the opposing side.

The “adults” were usually those who didn’t stray too far from the political center, however that was defined at the moment. Bernie Sanders has never qualified as an “adult” in the Washington usage of the word, although he is old enough to collect Social Security; nor did Ralph Nader; nor did Rand Paul, though he is old enough to perform eye surgery. What made them deficient was not their character or their immaturity, but their views.

Following the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House, the meaning of the words “adult” and “grownup” has undergone a subtle but remarkable shift. They now refer far more to behavior and character than to views on policy. This is where Kelly, McMaster, Mattis, and (to a lesser extent) Tillerson come in; “grownup” is the behavioral role that we have assigned to them.

For the first time, America has a president who does not act like an adult. He is emotionally immature: he lies, taunts, insults, bullies, rages, seeks vengeance, exalts violence, boasts, refuses to accept criticism, all in ways that most parents would seek to prevent in their own children. Thus the dynamic was established in the earliest days of the administration: Trump makes messes, or threatens to make them, and Americans look to the “adults” to clean up for him. The “adults,” in turn, send out occasional little public signals that they are trying to keep Trump from veering off course—to educate him, to make him grow up, to keep him under control. When all else fails, they simply distance themselves from his tirades. Sometimes such efforts are successful; on many occasions, they aren’t.


The back-and-forth between Trump and the “adults” has been evident on matters both big and small. Sometimes these involve questions of symbolic significance concerning the role of the president: when, at Trump’s first cabinet meeting, officials took turns in front of television cameras thanking Trump and singing his praises, as if the president were a Central Asian dictator, Mattis opted out, saying, “It’s an honor to represent the great men and women of the Department of Defense.” Sometimes these matters involve issues of sweeping importance: before Trump’s first trip to Europe, Tillerson, Mattis, and McMaster joined together to put into a draft of his speech a reaffirmation of Article V of the NATO treaty, committing the United States to the collective defense of Europe.2 Yet Trump ultimately cut the words from his speech. Then, after the understandable and predictable uproar, he turned around and made the commitment.

Trump’s blustering, threatening behavior has raised fears that he might do something impulsive, such as launch a nuclear attack. Those fears, in turn, have heightened the perception of the “adults” as watchdogs or guardians. In February, the Associated Press said that “for the first few weeks after the inauguration, Mattis and Kelly agreed that one of them should remain in the United States to keep tabs on the orders rapidly firing out of the White House.”3 Ever since, various versions of this story have appeared again and again, sometimes including McMaster or Tillerson, and usually without the time limits of the original story.

Mattis has had the (relatively) easiest time of it with Trump, while McMaster and, now, Kelly, have had the hardest, in part because of the nature of the different jobs they hold. As defense secretary, Mattis has a cabinet job that keeps him across the Potomac River, running the US government’s biggest department, and Trump seems to allow him considerably more latitude than the other “adults.”

Mattis, a former Marine Corps general who served as commander of America’s Central Command forces in the Middle East, has the satisfaction of knowing he has strong-to-intense support on Capitol Hill, where John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, let it be known at the start of the administration that he would serve as Mattis’s protector. Mattis has also been especially popular within the military. Before his appointment, he said that he would speak his mind when his views differed from those of Trump. He explained, for example, why he opposes the use of torture.

With greater job security than the other “adults,” Mattis seems to have assumed the role of reminding Americans and the rest of the world that the American government existed before Trump and will survive him. At a conference in Singapore in June, when asked if America were retreating from its role in the world, he invoked a quote routinely misattributed to Churchill about America: “Bear with us,” Mattis told the audience. “Once we have exhausted all possible alternatives, the Americans will do the right thing.”

In contrast, McMaster and Kelly work at staff jobs inside the White House, where they must deal with Trump day after day. After he was appointed White House chief of staff in late July, Kelly sought to impose order, controlling who gets to see Trump and restricting what materials are given to him. But there were quickly signs that Kelly’s discipline campaign could go only so far. He could not stop Trump from saying outrageous things in public on the spur of the moment; Trump’s outburst equating the two sides in the Charlottesville protests came at what was supposed to be a press conference on infrastructure, and it left Kelly staring at the floor. It was not long before some of Trump’s friends let it be known that the president was chafing against Kelly’s restrictions. In his recent book, The Gatekeepers, Chris Whipple writes that the position of White House chief of staff “is what may well be the toughest job in Washington—so arduous that the average tenure is a little more than eighteen months.”4 At this juncture, it seems extremely unlikely that Kelly will raise the average.

As national security adviser, McMaster has had to handle especially acrimonious disputes inside the White House over issues ranging from trade and immigration to America’s role in the world. At the same time, he has had to wrestle with personnel battles that extend beyond the usual ones among cabinet secretaries. He has had to deal with various White House figures, including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whom Trump set up as a mini-czar over foreign-policy issues ranging from the Middle East to Mexico and China. Above all, McMaster waged a months-long battle with Stephen Bannon, the leader of the populist wing of the administration, until Bannon finally departed in mid-August.


Tillerson has been the most baffling of the “adults.” He had years of experience running one of America’s leading corporations but is serving as a classic example of why such experience does not necessarily prepare one for a top cabinet post. He came to the position of secretary of state with more establishment credentials (or at least job references) than any of the other “adults”; luminaries of past Republican administrations, such as Robert Gates, Condoleezza Rice, and James Baker all supported him. Yet Tillerson has gone further than anyone else on the foreign policy team to create a radical break with the past. His determined, prolonged efforts to pare down the State Department—by supporting budget cuts, reorganizing positions out of existence, and, above all, choosing to leave major jobs unfilled—have left the nation’s leading diplomats shocked and demoralized, wandering around the silent halls past one empty office after another. Indeed, whether intentionally or not, Tillerson has done much to carry out Bannon’s populist call of last February for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

For all the attention given to the personal qualities of the “adults” (that is, their ability to preserve a modicum of stability within the administration amidst the Trumpian turmoil), their views have attracted far less scrutiny. It can be argued that what the “adults” believe about various foreign-policy issues is more important than it was for their predecessors in past administrations, because Trump himself seems to care little about policy, certainly not about its details or complexities. He operates in the public realm of words, tweets, and cable shows, leaving hard policymaking to underlings. Indeed, sometimes there seems to be a complete disconnect between Trump’s show-business presidency and what is actually transpiring inside the federal government, as when Trump issued a seeming ban on transgenders in the military on Twitter, while Mattis both limited its scope and delayed it from taking effect.

The “adults” have a record of beliefs and actions that, in any other administration, would stand out more. Kelly, now in the White House, was early on—as secretary of homeland security—a strong supporter of Trump’s order to limit immigration from Muslim countries into the United States. Tillerson seems to have an especially rosy view of Putin’s Russia, as well as an obvious aversion to issues of human rights and democracy. McMaster, along with Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, last spring wrote the startling Wall Street Journal Op-Ed that gave a Hobbesian underpinning to Trump’s “America First” worldview: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”5

It is the underlying foreign-policy views and experiences of the three “adults” with military backgrounds—Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly—that are the most important and the least covered. What counts above all are their views on issues concerning armed conflict. Because they come from the military, there have been occasional suggestions that they will somehow bring the United States into new wars.

As will be seen, there is solid ground for concern about their military backgrounds, but the simplistic fear that their military service might lead them to support the use of force seems misplaced. Most of America’s disastrous or ill-fated military interventions—Vietnam, George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, Libya—were spearheaded by civilians. The notion that military officers are Washington’s leading hawks dates back to the era when Air Force General Curtis LeMay tried to persuade President Kennedy to bomb Cuba. But the stereotype has less validity today, when military leaders seem intensely aware of the risks of stumbling into war. Before coming to the White House, McMaster was known primarily as the author of the book Dereliction of Duty, an account of America’s involvement in Vietnam. McMaster’s conclusion was blunt and stark:

The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times or on the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C…. The disaster in Vietnam was not the result of impersonal forces but a uniquely human failure, the responsibility for which was shared by President Johnson and his principal military and civilian advisers.6

The three “adults” from the military do seem to share a kind of collective view, based on their experiences in uniform. All of them fought on the ground in America’s post-September 11 conflicts. Mattis was the commander in charge of America’s wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Kelly served under Mattis in Iraq; his own son was killed in combat in Afghanistan. McMaster commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an essay about Afghanistan in 2012, McMaster wrote: “The difference between how the war is briefed in Washington, D.C., and in Kabul, versus how it is waged in the field, cannot be starker.”7

It is this perspective, the result of being longtime outsiders to Washington, that distinguishes the current group of “adults” from previous generals and admirals who moved into civilian posts. Most of the military leaders often mentioned as their predecessors—for example, Alexander Haig, the former White House chief of staff and secretary of state; or Brent Scowcroft, the two-time national security adviser; or Colin Powell, the national security adviser and secretary of state—rose to prominence largely through their long service in Washington. All of these predecessors had powerful civilian mentors who, over time, promoted them to senior positions (Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger for Haig and Scowcroft, Defense Secretaries Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci for Powell).

But Trump’s “adults,” as a group, have been mostly soldiers, not staff officers in the Haig model. As a result, their disposition seems to be not so much to enter into new wars as to find ways to win the wars America has already entered—the wars in which they themselves have fought. If there is a single major issue on which they have clearly prevailed over Trump’s own initial instincts, it was the decision in August to send new American troops to Afghanistan.

In a perceptive description of the outlook of Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly, veteran defense correspondent James Kitfield wrote that they aim “to correct what senior military officers see as the mistakes of the Obama administration.”8 Those mistakes, from the military viewpoint, include the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq after a 2012 deadline, leaving a vacuum that was filled by the Islamic State; the setting of a time limit for Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan; and Obama’s failure to enforce the red line he drew against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. (The “adults” were instrumental in Trump’s decision to launch Tomahawk missiles against Syria last April when Bashar al-Assad’s forces again used such weapons.9)

Beyond this desire for successful outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the ongoing war with ISIS, the views of Trump’s “adults” are more vague and less predictable. They seem to favor generally tougher approaches to Iran, particularly in comparison with the policies of the Obama administration. Mattis, in a long interview with a high school newspaper last spring, called Iran’s government “a murderous regime” and “certainly the most destabilizing influence in the Middle East.”10 So far, however, the Trump administration has not withdrawn from the nuclear agreement Obama negotiated with Iran.

Yet there is little that suggests what these three generals think about China or North Korea. Like US military officers in general, they tend to favor preserving and strengthening America’s existing military alliances. That, in itself, creates the sort of tension with Trump that was apparent during the president’s first visit to Europe.

The most troubling question about Trump’s “adults” is not so much what they believe but why most of them come from the military. There have never been so many military leaders at the top levels of America’s foreign-policy apparatus. Many in this country do not realize how strong the strictures have been in the past against military officers serving in senior civilian posts.

The reasons for the old rules start, above all, with concerns about civilian control of the military, but they go further, to the impact within the military itself. If military leaders are allowed to take top civilian posts, the argument goes, it opens the way for those officers to take a civilian (or “political”) route to military promotion. The classic example is Haig, who entered the Nixon White House in 1969 as a colonel and left in 1974 as a four-star general.

When Scowcroft became national security adviser in 1975, he chose to resign from the Air Force. “For a senior White House official to retain a military commission would, [Scowcroft] thought, divide his loyalty between his military superiors and the American president,” wrote his biographer, Bartholomew Sparrow.11 Twelve years later, the report of the congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair specifically urged that the job of national security adviser be held by a civilian. Nonetheless, since that recommendation, various presidents have appointed one or another active-duty or retired military officer to serve along with the civilians in top leadership ranks: Powell was Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, Scowcroft was George H.W. Bush’s, and retired Marine Commandant James Jones was Obama’s.

With Trump, this pattern has been reversed. There are few civilians at the top of the national-security apparatus, while present or former military leaders occupy the positions of national security adviser, defense secretary, and White House chief of staff. Mattis this year became the first former military leader to serve as secretary of defense since George Marshall was appointed to the job in 1950.

The ascendance of Trump’s generals has raised alarms that the military might be trying to take over the country. “Is a Military Coup in the Cards?” blared one Newsweek headline this summer, after a video went viral showing Mattis telling some American troops, “Our country, right now, it’s got problems that we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.” It turned out that those remarks were not new; Mattis had, on other occasions, decried the political divisions in America and urged those in the military to “hold the line.”12

But for now there is scant evidence that the military is pushing to increase its political influence. Trump’s three generals didn’t seek out the civilian jobs they now hold, collectively or individually. Trump chose to put them there. The chances are that some of them won’t stay for long, either; there have already been occasional reports that McMaster or Kelly will be fired or quit. (It is a fair and continuing question whether the proper course for an “adult” in the Trump administration is to resign from it.)

The underlying, longer-term problem is the lack of civilian influence on foreign policy. Even if the generals leave, Trump may choose other military leaders to replace them, rather than appoint civilian leaders who might emerge as dissenters, challengers, or rivals. It is hard to remember now, but when Trump was creating his foreign-policy team, he talked with centrist Republicans (Mitt Romney), right-wing Republicans (John Bolton), and pro-Trump Republicans (Newt Gingrich) before rejecting all of them, along with various other foreign policy specialists, turning instead to Tillerson and the generals. Moreover, this dearth in civilian leadership will last longer than Trump’s initial choices and appointments: Tillerson’s failure to fill many State Department jobs means that there are fewer civilians in second-level positions gaining the valuable experience they could use to shape American foreign policy in the future.

In a recent insightful book based on her experiences in the Pentagon under Obama, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything,13 Rosa Brooks describes how the military has come to dominate American foreign policy overseas because it possesses the money and personnel to do what the State Department cannot. “It’s a vicious circle: as civilian capacity has declined, the military has stepped into the breach,” Brooks wrote.

Under Trump, this phenomenon is now spreading from US operations abroad to the top levels of leadership in Washington. After the racist violence in Charlottesville and Trump’s incendiary comments about it, the leaders of America’s five military services—that is, the individual members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—published statements condemning racist hatred. They had strong and legitimate military reasons to do so, in order to make certain there was no racial upheaval among the troops. Nevertheless, it was a little unsettling. In the past, America did not have to rely upon its military leaders to calm passions or make soothing statements, because those are the sorts of things that usually come from presidents and top civilian leaders. Such statements raise, momentarily, the specter of countries like Turkey or Egypt or Thailand, where the military assumes an obligation to step in for the good of the country when civilian governments have collapsed.

For now, such comparisons seem remote. But what has been most disturbing this year is the subtle link that is being created in American consciousness between the phrases “military leaders” or “generals” and the phrases “adults” or “grownups in the room.” Having military figures act as “adults” may somehow suggest that civilians lack the capacity to govern on their own, or even that civilians act like children. That, in Trump’s case, would be sadly accurate.

—September 28, 2017