Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned Thursday, one day after President Donald Trump thwarted Mattis and others in his administration by announcing he would pull American troops out of Syria. President Trump wrote in a tweet that Mattis would leave his post in February.
Mattis, a former U.S. Marine Corps general who served as the head of the United States Central Command from 2010 to 2013, is the 10th Cabinet-level official to depart in the first two years of the president’s tenure.
He was part of a troika of former high-ranking military officers — the others were former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly — who were considered a collective, steadying influence inside the Trump White House.
Though he didn’t mention Syria in his letter, Mattis made clear he was leaving because he disagreed with the commander in chief on issues that were central to his job and to the direction of the country.
“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. “While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.”
Democrats and Republicans alike decried the resignation.
“This is a very sad day for our country,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader who is expected to become speaker next month. “Read his letter. And examine the activities that have led up to it…Because of his leadership we are safe. Yes. And we have to pray that we’re safe and we have to continue to make sure the American people are sure we’re safe….We shouldn’t have to do so because of the temper tantrums of the commander in chief.”
“I slept better at night knowing that General Mattis was protecting our nation, our allies, and our brave men and women in uniform – many of whom I’ve worked with in the trenches,” tweeted Will Hurd, a Texas Republican and former CIA agent. “This is bad news for the nation and the security of the world.”
The New York Times, citing official sources, reported that Mattis went to the White House on Thursday afternoon in a last attempt to convince Mr. Trump to keep American troops in Syria, where they have been fighting the Islamic State. He was rebuffed, and told the president that he was resigning as a result.
Trump tried to put a positive spin on the resignation.
In a two-part tweet Thursday evening, the president wrote, “General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February, after having served my Administration as Secretary of Defense for the past two years. During Jim’s tenure, tremendous progress has been made, especially with respect to the purchase of new fighting equipment. General Mattis was a great help to me in getting allies and other countries to pay their share of military obligations. A new Secretary of Defense will be named shortly. I greatly thank Jim for his service!”
General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February, after having served my Administration as Secretary of Defense for the past two years. During Jim’s tenure, tremendous progress has been made, especially with respect to the purchase of new fighting….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 20, 2018
In his resignation letter, Mattis made polite references to philosophical tensions between himself and the president.
“I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours,” he wrote. Mattis cited China and Russia as two nations that “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.”
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects,” Mattis wrote, “I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
SecDef Mattis letter on his resignation pic.twitter.com/txxNQF85Y5
— Jason Leopold (@JasonLeopold) December 20, 2018
It would appear that Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria was the precipitating event for Mattis’ decision, though tensions had reportedly been building between the two for some time. Trump declared victory over Islamic State despite warnings from Mattis and others that the hard line Islamic group had not been vanquished.
Even before Mattis resigned, a number of Republicans in Congress openly criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria.
Mattis’ efforts to keep Trump on an even keel didn’t always succeed, although at times, he did achieve some measure of moderation.
For example, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, the president gave Mattis, an avowed critic of torture and so-called “enhanced interrogation,” permission to “override” him on decisions related to the deployment of such techniques despite the president’s steadfast belief that torture “absolutely” works.
Still, their differences between could not always be reconciled. Mattis, for instance, supported the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, which Trump ended. A particularly low moment between the two men occurred in June of this year, when Trump announced the cancellation of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea as a “surprise concession” made during his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The decision was made without consulting Mattis or other Pentagon officials who, like the South Korean government, were left out of the loop.
Mattis and Trump continued to clash over this and other matters throughout the fall.