Mattis Resigns as Defense Chief, Citing Differences With Trump
James Mattis, U.S. secretary of defense, listens at a news conference in Washington DC. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Mattis Resigns as Defense Chief, Citing Differences With Trump

(Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced his resignation on Thursday, citing differences over policy with Donald Trump, a day after the president abruptly called for the withdrawal of American forces from Syria.

Mattis informed the president of his decision in a meeting earlier in the afternoon in which the two discussed policy differences that have included the president’s decision to pull out of Syria, said a White House official. Mattis’s departure didn’t cause the president to rethink his decision on Syria, the official added.

In a two-page letter to the president, Mattis laid out his convictions on the value of U.S. leadership in strategic alliances, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the 74-nation coalition to defeat Islamic State. His letter also suggested differences with Trump over the president’s handling of strategic challenges posed by Russia and China.

Mattis Resigns as Defense Chief, Citing Differences With Trump

“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,” Mattis said in the letter to Trump released by the Pentagon.

Moments earlier, Trump announced the news on Twitter, saying that Mattis would be the latest senior official to leave his Cabinet and that the former Marine general would be “retiring, with distinction, at the end of February.” Trump said he would name a new Pentagon chief “shortly.”

The move drew an unusually sharp rebuke from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who rarely criticizes the president in public. McConnell urged the president to replace Mattis with someone who shares the view that it’s essential to maintain post-World War II alliances and has “a clear-eyed understanding of friends and foes,” identifying Russia as an antagonist.

“I was sorry to learn that Secretary Mattis, who shares those clear principles, will soon depart the administration,” McConnell said in a statement. “But I am particularly distressed that he is resigning due to sharp differences with the president on these and other key aspects of America’s global leadership.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio said in a tweet Mattis’s resignation letter “makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.”

“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.”

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she was “shaken” by his resignation.

Mattis departs at a fraught moment in American foreign policy as the administration grapples with North Korean nuclear talks, Russian aggression in Ukraine and growing influence in Syria, rising tensions with Iran and an ongoing trade war with China.

Mattis was one of Trump’s first cabinet picks after the 2016 election. He was long seen as a force for stability in foreign policy in an administration that has had to manage crises from North Korea to Syria under a president who prides himself on his unpredictability.

He will be the last to depart among a trio of generals shaped by combat experience in Iraq that Trump had placed in key national security posts. H.R. McMaster was appointed national security adviser one month into the Trump administration then ousted in April of this year. John Kelly was Homeland Security Secretary and then White House chief of staff, a job he will leave in early January.

Trump’s hope is to name a replacement for Mattis by the end of the year, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday.

Mattis met with staff at the Pentagon on Thursday following his meeting with the president to tell them he was stepping down, a defense official familiar with the events said. The staff were shocked, the official said, and Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan was apparently caught off guard -- he had already left the building and had to be called back, another official said.

After Trump said he’d nominate Mattis for the top Pentagon job, the late Senator John McCain hailed him as “one of the finest military officers of his generation and an extraordinary leader who inspires a rare and special admiration of his troops.” Short and wiry with a brush-cut haircut, Mattis was known as the “Warrior Monk” and sometimes as “Mad Dog,” a nickname he disliked as much as Trump loved invoking it.

At the Pentagon, he followed a succession of defense chiefs -- Ash Carter, Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta -- who each lasted about two years in office.

Defense Spending Surge

Beyond his reputation as a voice for stability in military and foreign policy, Mattis may be best-remembered for overseeing a surge in defense spending. The fiscal year 2019 military budget of more than $715 billion bore his imprint and was seen as fulfillment of a key campaign pledge by Trump, ramping up spending for weapons systems including Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 jet and new aircraft carriers built by Huntington Ingalls Inc.

Mattis found himself on the defensive after excerpts from author Bob Woodward’s book “Fear,” published in early September, painted the publicly taciturn Pentagon secretary as critical in private of the commander-in-chief.

According to Woodward, Mattis pushed back early in 2018 when Trump questioned the massive U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula, asking why the U.S. was spending so much.

‘World War III’

“We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mattis said, according to the book. He went on to tell associates that the president had the understanding of a “fifth or sixth-grader,” according to Woodward. It also quoted the secretary as saying that defense chiefs “don’t always get to choose the president they work for.”

Mattis was one of the first top administration officials to deny the book’s claims.

But Trump’s most direct public criticism of Mattis followed the book’s revelations.

Mattis was a defense secretary of few words in public. Asked in a May 2017 interview on CBS News about what keeps him up at night, Mattis responded “Nothing. I keep other people awake.”

Even before he took charge of the Pentagon, Mattis and Trump were in sync in their views on Iran. Mattis called the Iran nuclear deal reached under President Barack Obama “an arms control agreement that fell short” and labeled the regime in Tehran “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East.”

Mattis wasn’t always in lockstep with Trump. Like other foreign policy officials in the Trump administration, he spoke out against Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign and its actions in Syria and Ukraine. The National Defense Strategy published during Mattis’s tenure sought to focus U.S. strategy toward “great power” relations with Russia and China, putting less emphasis on the fight against terrorism that came to dominate U.S. thinking after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Trump credited the blunt-talking Mattis with getting him to rethink his campaign pledge to revive waterboarding, an interrogation tactic used against suspected terrorists that Obama had banned. “He said, ‘I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I’ll do better,”’ the president-elect recounted to the New York Times.

Mattis retired from the military in 2013 after a 41-year career in the Marines that took him from rifleman to head of U.S. Central Command.

A native of Pullman, Washington, Mattis had more than 30 years’ experience in the Middle East, where he first deployed in 1979 as an infantry company commander. Later he led the NATO’s transformation office and rewrote -- along with Army General David Petraeus -- the military’s counterinsurgency field manual. He was one of few military officers who identified U.S. economic debt as a national security issue.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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