Jim Matti speaks while seated next to U.S. President Donald Trump, right, during a briefing with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

Mattis Eviscerates Trump Worldview in Blunt Resignation Letter

(Bloomberg) -- The world long wondered what Defense Secretary Jim Mattis thought about Donald Trump’s approach to the world. Now it knows.

In a scathing two-page letter that Mattis said reflected his “four decades of immersion” in national security issues, the four-star general praised U.S. leadership in global alliances, called out Russia and China for authoritarian behavior and said American leaders need to be “clear-eyed” about separating friends from foes.

Mattis Eviscerates Trump Worldview in Blunt Resignation Letter

That amounted to a repudiation of Trump’s “America First” doctrine in which historic allies found themselves demeaned and sidelined while authoritarians like Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin were frequently praised.

In both his first and last sentences to the president, Mattis said he was honored to serve the nation alongside American men and women in uniform. One person not mentioned: Donald Trump.

The unexpected resignation came one day after Trump abruptly reversed course on Syria over his defense chief’s objections, declaring “victory” over Islamic State and saying he wanted all 2,000 American troops in the country to leave soon. The withdrawal went against everything the president’s national security team had been advocating since Trump took office. Trump also has decided to cut in half the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, according to a defense official.

By contrast, in his letter Mattis cited the Defeat-ISIS coalition of 74 nations as an example of the power of American-led alliances, but he made clear his decision was much more than frustration over any one policy move.

In the span of eight paragraphs, Mattis put to words the misgivings that many of Trump’s senior-most defense and foreign-policy officials have held about the president’s disruptive approach to foreign policy -- and said he could no longer serve.

“We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances,” Mattis wrote. “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

‘Grave Policy Errors’

The move stunned many in Washington who thought they had grown accustomed to the wildly unpredictable nature of the Trump administration.

“This is scary,” Senator Mark Warner, the top-ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said in a tweet posted shortly after the announcement. “Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.” Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio wrote that the letter showed “that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who rarely criticizes Trump in public, said he was “particularly distressed” that Mattis was leaving because of “sharp differences” over core beliefs and urged Trump to choose a successor “who shares Secretary Mattis’s understanding of these vital principles.”

Mattis was widely seen as the last of the so-called “adults in the room” after the departures of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and the upcoming exit of Chief of Staff John Kelly. While Trump could publicly criticize NATO, South Korea, Germany and the U.K., Mattis and the others were always in the background to smooth over the frustration of allies wondering if America had lost its way.

No more. Trump has been overhauling his national security team for months, replacing a more traditional foreign policy core with hardliners and leaving Mattis to seem like a relic from an earlier era.

Bolton, Pompeo

With Mattis gone, Trump’s policies will be largely left to officials more willing to defend his worldview, including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. In a speech in Brussels earlier in December, Pompeo espoused a view that seems to go against everything Mattis stands for, launching broadsides against the European Union, the United Nations and a host of other international organizations, saying “they must be reformed or eliminated.”

The defense secretary’s letter offered a different take. He argued the U.S. can’t fulfill its leadership role or protect its own interests “without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”

“One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships,” Mattis wrote.

‘Warrior Monk’

The defense chief broke the news to Trump in a previously unscheduled meeting at the White House on Thursday afternoon. He then returned to his Pentagon office across the Potomac River in Virginia. He met with his shocked staff to deliver the news, stressing that he would be staying through February.

The letter won’t be Mattis’s final word on his differences with the president. His Feb. 28 resignation date means he’s likely to testify before two if not all four of the congressional defense committees overseeing the fiscal 2020 budget request. Those hearings will be one more chance for the man once known as the “warrior monk” to weigh in on his commander in chief’s approach to the world.

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