Mattis issues a sharp rebuke to Trump as he announces his departure as Defense secretary

Defense Secretary James N. Mattis’ exit leaves President Trump free to choose a new Pentagon chief who will be more in line with his own instincts.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis told President Trump on Thursday that he will resign in February, handing the president a strongly worded two-page letter that in effect rebuked the president for his military policies and lack of respect for allies.

Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, went to the White House on Thursday afternoon to try to persuade Trump to reconsider his plan to pull all U.S. troops out Syria, a decision the secretary had strongly opposed before the president announced it on Twitter on Wednesday.

When Trump refused to yield, Mattis quit in protest and handed over a resignation letter that made clear his disapproval of parts of the president’s military policy and behavior. A White House aide said the decision for Mattis to leave was “made jointly.”


RELATED: Read Mattis’ letter of resignation »

Mattis also was incensed that Trump next plans to withdraw up to half the 14,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, another move the secretary viewed as endangering an ally, a second official said.

The extraordinary showdown in the Oval Office exposed a deep rift between the president and his Pentagon chief. No Cabinet secretary has resigned over a policy dispute in decades.

Mattis’ looming departure ends a tenure at the Pentagon marked by repeated private clashes with the president that left the retired general steadily more isolated from the White House even as U.S. forces remain involved in wars overseas.

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, the resignation sent shock waves through Washington.

Mattis’ departure marks the latest shake-up of a Cabinet that appears in perpetual turmoil. Since the Nov. 6 midterm election, Trump has ousted Atty. Gen. 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.


Mattis’ resignation letter, which was released by the Pentagon, was blunt. He staunchly defended 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.

A senior U.S. official familiar with Mattis’ thinking said the Pentagon chief and the president “were too far apart” on a host of issues, including Trump’s willingness to abandon U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in Syria who now may be targeted by Turkey.

Mattis also was bothered by Trump’s chaotic decision-making, with major national security course changes made abruptly and sometimes without formal consultation with his advisors.

Mattis chafed at Trump’s decision to send nearly 6,000 active-duty troops to the Mexico border days before the midterm election. He kept a “tight leash on the operation,” the official said, even as Trump and White House aides pressed for expanding the military mission to aid the Border Patrol. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.

Possible choices to replace Mattis could include Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan. But it may be difficult to find a new Pentagon chief who has Trump’s ear and the kind of support Mattis has had in Congress.

“While I understand his reluctance to continue to serve in an administration that ignores his expertise, I’m unsure who — if anyone — will be able to replace his measured, thoughtful approach in these important conversations,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said.

Members of Congress from both parties responded 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.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was “particularly distressed” that Mattis was resigning “due to sharp differences with the president on ... key aspects of America’s global leadership.”

He urged Trump to select a replacement who shares Mattis’ “understanding of these vital principles.”

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-Burbank) 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 advisors 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.”

Mattis later had insisted to reporters that he had no plans to leave the administration and dismissed reports that he and Trump rarely spoke.

But his influence seemed to wane, especially as Trump insisted after heavy Republican losses in the midterm election that he needed to fulfill campaign pledges to limit U.S. involvement overseas and focus on hot-button domestic issues such as border security.

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 4½ 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 press conferences or interviews. Instead he worked behind the scenes to reassure allies that the United States remained a reliable partner, despite Trump’s attacks on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 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.

While in that post, Mattis sometimes had tense relations with President Obama’s aides over his proposals to keep military pressure on Iran.

Trump campaigned on the idea of unleashing the military to quickly defeat Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, and to end the long-running war in Afghanistan. His ideas resonated with a Pentagon that often chafed under tight restrictions imposed by the Obama administration.

After Trump was elected, he was drawn to Mattis’ reputation as a fierce battlefield commander and a nickname, “Mad Dog,” that Mattis 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.”

Times staff writers Noah Bierman, Eli Stokols, Sarah D. Wire, David Willman and Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.

Twitter: @davidcloudLAT