Trump seeks high ground over Mattis as Syria withdrawal is ordered

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday sought to seize the high ground in a heated debate over the departure of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, while the Pentagon chief authorized the withdrawal of U.S forces from Syria that had helped trigger his resignation.

A day after Trump announced that he would replace Mattis two months earlier than expected, the president said on Twitter that the Pentagon chief had not recognized international dynamics behind America’s military role around the world.

“We are substantially subsidizing the Militaries of many VERY rich countries all over the world, while at the same time these countries take total advantage of the U.S., and our TAXPAYERS, on Trade,” Trump said in a series of tweets.

“General Mattis did not see this as a problem. I DO, and it is being fixed!” he said.

Mattis has been seen in Europe as firmly committed to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military alliance, while Trump warned European allies that the United States could withdraw its support unless they boost defense spending.

Mattis’ resignation 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.

Mattis signed an order authorizing the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, said a Pentagon spokesman, who provided no operational details. Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria was one of the reasons Mattis resigned.

Defense officials have cautioned against a timeline but the withdrawal could begin in weeks. A senior official said a specific plan was being worked out.

Trump made the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and pull out about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, against the advice of his top aides and U.S. commanders. The move brought withering criticism from fellow Republicans, Democrats and international allies.

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday he deeply regretted Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria.

The exit of Mattis, highly regarded by Republicans and Democrats alike, added to concerns over what many see as Trump’s unpredictable, go-it-alone approach to global security.

“To those few Senators who think I don’t like or appreciate being allied with other countries, they are wrong, I DO,” Trump also tweeted.

“What I don’t like, however, is when many of these same countries take advantage of their friendship with the United States.”


FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis attend the 119th Army-Navy football game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. December 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Young/File Photo

Mattis’ abrupt resignation sparked concern among allies, who credit the retired general with building trust and tempering isolationist impulses.

In his resignation letter, Mattis had said he would step down at the end of February to allow for a successor to be confirmed and to attend congressional hearings and a key NATO meeting.

But Trump, who was irked by the attention given to Mattis’ letter, said Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan would take over on an acting basis from Jan. 1.

Reporting by David Morgan and Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken and Dan Grebler

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