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

David S. Cloud
Los Angeles Times

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.

Mattis’ departure marks the latest shake-up of a Cabinet that appears in perpetual turmoil. Since the Nov. 6 midterm election, Trump has fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, pushed out chief of staff John Kelly, and accepted the resignation of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Mattis made no secret of his disagreements with the president’s policies and style in a strongly worded, two-page resignation letter that the Pentagon released shortly after Trump tweeted Mattis’ planned departure.

“My views on treating allies with respect and also about being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are well-known,” he 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.”

Mattis said he would remain in the job until Feb. 28, to allow time for a successor to be nominated and confirmed.

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 as happened just Wednesday with the sudden announcement that the president had ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.

Trump had signaled his own annoyance 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 the 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 disruptive 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 U.S. troops from Syria, and the scale of U.S. airstrikes against Damascus after its use of chemical agents against civilians.

Mattis’ tenure in office matched the past 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 four and a half 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 part 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 command U.S. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.


While in that post, Mattis sometimes had tense relations with President Barack 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 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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