Mattis to step down as Pentagon chief after growing tensions with Trump

WASHINGTON — James N. Mattis will step down as defense secretary in February, President Donald Trump announced Thursday, ending a tenure at the Pentagon marked by repeated private clashes with the president that left the former Marine general steadily more isolated from the White House.

The decision comes a day after Trump abruptly overrode Pentagon objections and announced plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria and said he would seek to get the military to build a wall along the border with Mexico.

With the government facing a possible shutdown on Saturday, the stock market in sharp decline, and allies and Congress anxious about U.S. military commitments overseas, Mattis’ resignation sent shock waves through Washington.

His departure marks the latest shake-up of a Cabinet that appears in perpetual turmoil. Since the Nov. 6 midterm election, Trump has ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, pushed out chief of staff John F. Kelly and accepted the resignation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Other top officials are also said to be on the exit ramp.

The Pentagon released a two-page resignation letter from Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, in which he made no secret of his disagreements with parts of Trump’s foreign policy and abrasive behavior in foreign settings.

In the letter, Mattis staunchly defended the importance of U.S. military alliances, such as NATO, which Trump has threatened to abandon and repeatedly attacked as a poor deal for taxpayers.

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

“While the U.S. 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,” he added.

“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 he would stay at the Pentagon until Feb. 28, to allow time for a successor to be nominated and confirmed by the Senate.

Members of Congress from both parties reacted with praise for Mattis’ decades of service and some expressions of alarm.

“This is scary,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.”

“He will not be easy to replace,” tweeted Sen Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “For the sake of our national security I hope his decision to resign was motivated solely by a desire to enjoy a well deserved retirement.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he received the news “with great sadness.”

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said she was “shaken” by the news. “This is a very sad day for our country,” she told reporters at the Capitol.

“Old Marines never die, but they do resign after the President ignores their advice, betrays our allies, rewards our enemies, and puts the nation’s security at risk,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said in a statement. “Turn out the lights when Mattis leaves; we will not see his like again while Trump remains in office.”

Trump relied heavily on senior military officers for his national security team when he took office in 2017 as the first U.S. president with neither government nor military experience. With Mattis on the way out, Trump will lose the entire group he once dubbed “my generals” to their apparent discomfort.

Kelly, another retired four-star Marine general, will leave this month as chief of staff after also serving as secretary of Homeland Security. Former national security advisers Michael Flynn and H.R. McMaster, both retired three-star Army generals, were forced out last year.

Mattis’ departure had been rumored for months as signs accumulated that he was increasingly frustrated at Trump’s impetuous style and penchant for blindsiding the Pentagon with major policy announcements.

Trump had signaled his annoyance with Mattis in an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in October, saying, “I think he is a sort of Democrat, if you want to
know the truth.”

On Thursday, Trump announced his defense chief’s departure in his typical manner, on Twitter, although with more praise than he has offered to many other
departing officials.

“During Jim’s tenure, tremendous progress has been made, especially with respect to the purchase of new fighting equipment,” Trump wrote. “A new Secretary of Defense will be named shortly. I greatly thank Jim for his service!”

Mattis’ exit will leave Trump free to choose a new Pentagon chief more in line with his own unpredictable instincts and policies, and could portend more upheaval in national security decision-making.

As Pentagon chief, Mattis won Trump’s support early on for expanding the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and for unleashing the military against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

But as a civilian leader, Mattis has more often been the voice of military restraint. He often sought to reverse or slow-roll Trump decisions he opposed, a strategy that became less effective as time went on and as Trump began insisting the Pentagon follow his wishes.

Mattis recommended against pulling out of the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, for example, arguing that it was working to constrain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Trump withdrew from the agreement in May.

Mattis also was at odds with the president over Trump’s demand to bar transgender recruits from the military, his call to create a new armed service called the “space force,” his verbal attacks on NATO allies and his decision to halt training exercises in South Korea.

They also clashed over Trump’s suggestions that he may cut U.S. troop levels in Europe and Asia, the president’s call to remove American troops from Syria, and the scale of U.S. airstrikes against the Syrian government after its use of chemical agents against civilians.

Mattis’ tenure in office matched those of the previous three Pentagon chiefs, all of whom served around two years. But it was far briefer than two other recent defense secretaries, Robert M. Gates, who served 4 { years, and Donald H. Rumsfeld, who held the job for seven years.

More than his predecessors, Mattis focused on military readiness and training, while mostly shunning the Pentagon’s chief’s usual role as spokesman and defender of the administration’s national security decisions.

His low profile seemed aimed at staying off Trump’s radar and avoiding questions about where he and the president disagreed.

He rarely gave formal news conferences or interviews. Instead he often worked behind the scenes to reassure allies that the United States remained a reliable partner, despite Trump’s attacks on the NATO military alliance and other pillars of U.S. defense strategy.

Under Mattis, the Pentagon stepped up military sales and cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have been waging a bloody war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. He also widened the U.S. fight against Islamic State and other militant groups in Somalia, Libya and other parts of Africa.

He also pressed the Pentagon to shift back to a more conventional war fighting strategy, focused on countering Russia and China, rather than irregular warfare against militants across the globe, the focus of the post-9/11 period.

Trump chose him to run the Pentagon only four years after Mattis had retired as a four-star general. He spent 44 years in the Marine Corps, rising to the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

After Trump was elected, he was drawn to Mattis’ reputation as a fierce battlefield commander and a nickname, “Mad Dog,” that Mattis apparently disliked.
Mattis also was known for his colorful quips, such as his advice to Marines in Iraq to “be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

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