Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wants to tap the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Anne Patterson, as his undersecretary of defense for policy, but the Pentagon chief is running into resistance from White House officials, according to multiple sources familiar with the situation.
If nominated and confirmed, Patterson would hold the fourth most powerful position at the Pentagon – and would effectively be the top civilian in the Defense Department, since both Mattis and his deputy, Robert Work, were military officers.
As ambassador to Egypt between 2011 and 2013, Patterson worked closely with former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist government. She came under fire for cultivating too close a relationship with the regime and for discouraging protests against it—and White House officials are voicing concerns about those decisions now.
The skirmish surrounding Patterson’s nomination is the latest in a series of personnel battles that have played out between Mattis and the White House, with each side rejecting the names offered up by the other while the Pentagon remains empty. The White House has yet to nominate a single undersecretary or deputy secretary to the Defense Department, while Work, Mattis’s deputy, is an Obama administration holdover who only agreed to stay on until the secretary taps a deputy of his own.
A similar tug of war has played out between the White House and other agency chiefs, most notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom the president denied his top choice for deputy secretary of state last month.
But it is Mattis who’s dug in most stubbornly, insisting on staffing his own department. “Mattis is a guy who cares very much about personnel,” said a Mattis friend. “He doesn’t want people off the tracks that he has laid down and that he’s running his train on.”
Patterson, a career diplomat, has never held a Defense Department position. She previously served as ambassador to Colombia and Pakistan. President Barack Obama nominated her to be the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, the post from which she retired last month.
She was the top American official in the country during a tumultuous time that saw the rise of Morsi and his supporters and his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood and, shortly thereafter, their ouster at the hands of the Egyptian military. Patterson became the subject of withering criticism when she dismissed the 2013 uprising against Morsi as “street protests.” Protesters plastered her face – crossed out with a red X – on signs and banners. In part, she had the misfortune of being the face of Obama’s policies in the country, and of the administration’s decision to stick with the Morsi government. Patterson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The biggest pushback [from the White House] is that she was ambassador to Egypt immediately before and after the Morsi presidency,” said a person familiar with the conversations. For Mattis’s part, he has “put her name forward and he doesn’t quite understand why people have an objection,” the person said.
A spokesman for Mattis declined to comment on the secretary’s personnel recommendations to the president.
The secretary of defense has been warring with the president and his aides over personnel since before the inauguration in January.
Transition officials swatted down Michele Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration and who was Mattis’s top choice to be his deputy; she eventually took herself out of the running for the position. Weeks later, Mattis was outraged when he learned from the news media that Trump had nominated an Army secretary without consulting with him, according to several transition aides.
“General Mattis has made it known that Mad Dog’s personnel choices are his and not what we are told are in his opinion political hacks from the Trump team—even though they’re great people,” said a former Trump campaign aide. “It’s the world view of a four-star general.”