Long before real planning for it began, and long before the first news stories about it, those of us in the top levels of the Pentagon heard President Donald Trump demand the military parade he would eventually get. The bizarre request was one of the first signs I had of the enormous rift between my boss at the time, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the president.
The clash came in the middle of Trump’s first Pentagon briefing on America’s military and diplomatic “laydown”—a term of art used to describe all of the locations around the world with U.S. forces and embassies—on July 20, 2017. Mattis, for whom I was working as chief speechwriter, had hoped the briefing would educate Trump on the United States’ longstanding commitment to the rest of the world. That is not at all what happened.
Instead, the president burst out in the middle of the meeting.
“I just returned from France,” he said. “Did you see President Macron’s handshake?” he asked no one in particular. “He wouldn’t let go. He just kept holding on. I spent two hours at Bastille Day. Very impressive.”
“I want a ‘Victory Day.’ Just like Veterans Day. The Fourth of July is too hot,” he said, apparently out of nowhere. “I want vehicles and tanks on Main Street. On Pennsylvania Avenue, from the Capitol to the White House. We need spirit! We should blow everybody away with this parade. The French had an amazing parade on Bastille Day with tanks and everything. Why can’t we do that?”
Those of us in the control room linked to the Pentagon conference room shifted uncomfortably, shooting glances at each other. Where was this going? We’d opened the control room door 30 minutes before to improve air flow. A Secret Service agent poked his head in, apparently uncomfortable with the conversation and the light it cast on the president. “Hey,” he asked, “do you guys need to still be in here?”
It was far from what Mattis had expected as he prepared meticulously for the meeting just hours before.
As the seconds ticked down, Mattis’ nervous energy had been palpable. Unusually so. Normally stoic and deliberate with his movements, this morning he was electrified. He was pacing in his office in the Pentagon, moving from a standing desk that faced the Potomac to the small circular table and back again. He shuffled his notes, putting them into a nondescript dark blue folder, pausing for a few seconds in hesitation before pulling them out again to rearrange their order. Things needed to be perfect.