U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, whose experience and stability were widely seen as a balance to an unpredictable president, resigned Thursday in protest of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and his rejection of international alliances.
Mattis had repeatedly told friends and aides over recent months that he viewed his responsibility to protect the United States’ 1.3 million active-duty troops as worth the concessions necessary as defense secretary to a mercurial president. But Thursday, in an extraordinary rebuke of the president, he finally decided that Trump’s decision to withdraw roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria was a step too far.
Officials said Mattis went to the White House on Thursday afternoon with his resignation letter already written but nonetheless made a last attempt at persuading Trump to reverse his decision about Syria, which the president announced Wednesday over the objections of his senior advisers.
Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, was rebuffed. Returning to the Pentagon, he asked aides to print out 50 copies of his resignation letter and distribute them around the building.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” 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.”
His resignation came as Congress appeared to be hurtling toward a government shutdown and a deep market slump became even worse over fears of continuing government turmoil.
Trump said Mattis will leave at the end of February and promised to name a replacement shortly. He said Mattis “was a great help to me in getting allies and other countries to pay their share of military obligations.”
The resignation came as the Pentagon prepared to draw down forces in another global conflict. Two Defense Department officials said about 7,000 troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan in coming months, cutting in half the number of U.S. forces there, in an early step to ending the United States’ involvement in the 17-year war.
“This is scary,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a Twitter post. He called Mattis “an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.”
“As we’ve seen with the President’s haphazard approach to Syria, our national defense is too important to be subjected to the President’s erratic whims,” Warner wrote.
“This is a sad day for America because Secretary Mattis was giving advice the President needs to hear,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. “Mattis rightly believes that Russia and China are clear adversaries and that we are at war with jihadists across the globe who plot to kill Americans at home.”
Mattis’ resignation letter was the sharpest, and most public, protest from inside the Trump administration over the president’s rejection of the alliances and relationships that have underpinned U.S. security since the end of World War II.
It was also the first resignation over a major national security issue by a leading Cabinet member since 1980, when Cyrus Vance quit as secretary of state. Vance left over President Jimmy Carter’s decision to attempt a rescue effort for U.S. hostages in Iran that Vance considered ill-advised.
Mattis’ complaints did not protest a single decision. Instead, they condemned an approach to the world by Trump that the defense secretary views as destructive to U.S. influence and power, and turning an blind eye to authoritarian governments.
He said the core of U.S. national interests lay in “providing effective leadership to our alliances.” He specifically described the import of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a defense alliance Trump has often derided. He also praised the “Defeat ISIS” coalition that Trump just abandoned in Syria, over Mattis’ objections.
But Mattis’ core complaint was that Trump had lost sight of the import of the competition for global power with Russia and China, who want “a world consistent with their authoritarian model.”
Mattis was the primary author of a new U.S. defense strategy with a central goal of taking on “revisionist” powers – an approach that some of Trump’s former advisers say the president never fully read.
Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria, which was opposed by virtually every high-level administration official, but lauded by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, was the last straw.
Along with both the military and civilian leadership at the Pentagon, Mattis viewed the withdrawal as an abandonment of Kurdish fighters and other U.S. allies, and a ceding of critical territory to Russia and Iran.
So angry was Mattis at the Syrian withdrawal that neither he, nor any other senior Pentagon official, would defend it publicly, despite requests from the White House to do so. As a result, Trump appeared by himself in a video showing him in front of the White House on Wednesday, announcing victory over the Islamic State.
During Thursday’s meeting at the Pentagon, officials said that Trump again asked Mattis to publicly endorse the Syria decision. Mattis refused.
The president’s tweets announcing the departure of his defense secretary shocked officials at the Pentagon, who as recently as Thursday afternoon were insisting that Mattis had no intention of resigning.
The relationship between Mattis and Trump had deteriorated for months. The widely accepted narrative that Mattis was the adult in the room when at the White House came to annoy Trump. In October, the president accused Mattis of being a Democrat – a charge akin to treason in the current Republican administration.
As defense secretary, Mattis oversaw the world’s most powerful military, supervising active-duty troops based in the United States and deployed worldwide, including in war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and on the Saudi border with Yemen. There are also around 25,000 U.S. troops in South Korea, where they have served for generations as a deterrent against North Korea.
As with Trump’s abrupt firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the split with Mattis was a full turn in a relationship that once appeared strong.
In Mattis’ early days as defense secretary, he often ate dinner with Trump in the White House residence. Over hamburgers, and with the help of briefing folders, he explained to the president key points about the United States’ relationships with allies.
But Mattis also quietly slow-walked a number of Trump’s proposals, from banning transgender troops to starting a Space Force to putting on a costly military parade. In each case, he went through the motions of acquiescing to the White House – and then buried the plans in Defense Department red tape.
Over the past six months, the president and the defense chief have also found themselves at odds over NATO policy, whether to resume large-scale military exercises with South Korea and, privately, whether Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal has proved effective.