Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned Thursday as the Pentagon chief just one day after President Donald Trump abruptly announced he was pulling all American troops out of Syria against the advice of his top national security advisers.
Mattis cited differences in views with the president in a resignation letter laced with criticism of Trump’s foreign policy. The letter was distributed by Pentagon officials moments after Trump announced Mattis’ impending “retirement, with distinction” via Twitter late Thursday afternoon.
“You have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views better align with yours,” Mattis wrote in the letter indicating he would leave at the end of February. “I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
For several months, Washington officials have speculated Mattis had diminished influence with the president, who has a penchant to follow his own gut and has long stated publicly he preferred to remove U.S. troops from war zones such as Syria and Afghanistan. Trump’s tweet Thursday came as the Wall Street Journal and CNN reported that the president was considering a pullout of nearly half of the 14,000 American troops operating in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials declined to comment on those reports Thursday evening.
In his letter, Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general hailed by American servicemembers in a cult-like fashion as a warrior monk, cited the importance of the United States backing its key allies. That was echoed by many critics of Trump’s Wednesday decision to leave Syria and abandoned the Kurdish-led militia that has conducted the bulk of ground operations against the Islamic State in that 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 [United States] 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.”
Mattis spent much of his tenure as defense secretary visiting with allies at the Pentagon and around the world, routinely delivering a message that the United States remained steadfast in its support for them, despite Trump’s rhetoric and insistence on an “America First” approach to international relations. He traveled frequently, visiting with his defense counterparts and heads of state across Europe and Asia.
But Mattis and Trump disagreed on a plethora of issues from the start of their relationship. From their first meeting in the weeks after Trump’s November 2016 election victory, Mattis and Trump found they did not agree on much. The two spent the bulk of the encounter discussing their differing opinions on topics, including the use of torture in interrogation and support for NATO, according to officials familiar with the engagement. But at the meeting, before Mattis was officially offered the top Pentagon job, he was able to convince Trump not to support torture or drastically alter the U.S. relationship with NATO.
However, during the last two years, Trump has repeatedly blindsided Mattis and other Pentagon officials with apparent spur-of-the-moment policy decisions with major implications for the U.S. military.
Trump caught the Pentagon by surprise in July 2017 when he tweeted he would reinstate a ban on transgender men and women serving in the military, a position defense officials have said Mattis opposed.
More recently, Mattis initially opposed Trump’s decisions to stall major training exercises in South Korea amid nuclear negotiations with North Korea and the deployment of thousands of military troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.
But it was Trump’s decision on Syria – and perhaps on Afghanistan as well – that proved Mattis’ final straw, officials said.
Trump on Wednesday announced he had made the decision for the about 2,000 U.S. troops operating in Syria to end their support of the Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, fighting the remnants of ISIS in eastern Syria and withdraw from the war-torn country. He proclaimed victory against ISIS, even as fighting continued and defense officials estimated the terrorist group still boasted thousands of fighters in Syria and Iraq.