WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis abruptly said he was quitting on Thursday after falling out with President Donald Trump over his foreign policies, one day after Trump rebuffed top advisers and decided to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the news media while gathering for a briefing from his senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 23, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Mattis announced plans to resign after a face-to-face meeting with Trump in which they aired their differences, a senior White House official said.
“Because you have a right to 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 in his resignation letter, released by the Pentagon.
A U.S. official said that Mattis’ departure had not been forced by Trump.
Trump announced on Wednesday that U.S. troops in Syria would be withdrawn, a decision that upended American policy in the region. On Thursday, officials said the president was considering a substantial U.S. pullout from the 17-year-long conflict in Afghanistan.
Mattis, a retired Marine general whose embrace of NATO and America’s traditional alliances often put him at odds with Trump, had opposed the decision on Syria, officials said. One official added it was a contributing factor to his resignation.
The news is certain to shock U.S. military allies, already bewildered by what they see as Trump’s unpredictable, go-it-alone approach to global security, and raises questions about whether Mattis’ successor will be as steadfast about traditional treaty commitments, including to NATO.
When Mattis interviewed with Trump for the job in 2016, he split with president-elect on a host of issues, including on NATO and the use of torture. Trump ultimately deferred to Mattis, who opposed the practice, signaling that he could be persuaded by his advisers.
But as time grew, Trump increasingly acted on his own instincts on a host of national security issues, choosing an “America First” agenda that contradicted Mattis’ core beliefs.
Trump had also rebuffed Mattis’ top pick to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, choosing instead Army General Mark Milley. Mattis supported Milley but had favored Air Force General David Goldfein.
His letter indicated that he disagreed with Trump’s isolationist policies, writing that it was his belief the United States needed to maintain strong alliances and show allies respect.
Trump has withdrawn the United States from several international agreements since taking office in January 2017.
The Mattis resignation letter also said that he believed the United States “must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours.” He identified Russia and China as countries that “want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model.”
WHITE HOUSE UNPREDICTABILITY
The shifts in significant aspects of U.S. foreign policy and Mattis’ addition to the long list of senior Trump administration figures who have quit or been removed added to the sense of an increasingly unpredictable White House as Trump approaches the halfway point of his four-year term.
And if defense policy disagreements were not enough distraction for a president who is under investigation by a special counsel over Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, financial markets took a beating this week and a U.S. government shutdown loomed because of funding disputes over Trump’s desire to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump, announcing Mattis’ departure on Twitter, said he would nominate a successor soon.
“General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February, after having served my Administration as Secretary of Defense for the past two years,” he said.
The two men met in the Oval Office on Thursday afternoon. During the session, Mattis told Trump of his plans to resign, the senior White House official said.
“He and the president had differences on some issues. I don’t know if it was specifically Syria,” the official said.
Trump’s White House has had the highest turnover of senior-level staff of the past five presidents, according to the Brookings Institution think tank. Some departed unceremoniously, such as Trump’s first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whom Trump fired via Twitter in March.
Speculation that Mattis might not last long in his post grew in October when Republican Trump said in a CBS interview that the general was “sort of a Democrat” and might be leaving.
Mattis, along with other national security aides, was said to have opposed Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from Syria. Many U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern about the decision and asked Trump to reconsider.
Mattis has argued for maintaining a strong U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to bolster diplomatic peace efforts.
The Pentagon declined comment on Afghanistan.
Garrett Marquis, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that the White House was not going to comment “on future strategic developments.”
U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said thousands of the 14,000 troops in Afghanistan could be sent home as a result of the deliberations, the disclosure of which could undermine peace efforts with the Taliban.
Reporting by Phil Stewart, Steve Holland and Idrees Ali in Washington; writing by Tim Ahmann; editing by James Dalgleish and Grant McCool