Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned Thursday — and the move has shocked political experts.
Mattis, perhaps the most respected foreign policy official in Trump’s administration, will leave by the end of February. He told Trump in a surprising letter that he was leaving because “you have a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”
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Mattis went to the White House with his resignation letter in hand to meet with the president and spoke to Trump for about 45 minutes, according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the incident.
There was no confrontation between the two men, the official said, and there was no single issue that caused the resignation. However, the official said, the withdraw from Syria was likely the last straw for Mattis.
His departure was immediately lamented by foreign policy hands and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who viewed the retired Marine general as a sober voice of experience in the ear of a president. Trump’s closest allies expressed fear over Mattis’ decision to quit, believing him to be an important advisor to the president.
“Just read Gen. Mattis resignation letter,” tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “It makes it abundantly clear that we are headed toward a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.”
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Mattis did not mention the dispute over Syria in his letter or proposed deep cuts to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, another significant policy dispute. He noted his “core belief” that American strength is “inextricably linked” with the nation’s alliances with other countries.
The defense secretary also said China and Russia want to spread their “authoritarian model” and promote their interests at the expense of America and its allies.
“That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense,” he wrote.
The announcement came a day after Trump surprised U.S. allies and members of Congress by announcing the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria. The news coincided with domestic turmoil as well, Trump’s fight with Democrats over a border wall and a looming partial government shutdown.
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Mattis, in his resignation letter, emphasized the importance of standing up for U.S. allies — an implicit criticism of the president’s decision on this issue.
“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,” Mattis wrote.
Mattis’ departure has long been rumored, but officials close to him have insisted that the battle-hardened retired Marine would hang on, determined to bring military calm and judgment to the administration and to soften some of Trump’s sharper tones with allies.
Opponents of Mattis, however, have seen him as an unwanted check on Trump.
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Mattis went to the White House Thursday afternoon to resign after failing to persuade the president in an Oval Office meeting to change his decision on withdrawing troops from Syria, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation but not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Another U.S. official said that Mattis’ decision was his own, and not a “forced resignation.”
Trump said a replacement would be chosen soon.
“The president’s national security team’s job is to give him advice and it’s the president’s job to make a decision,” said press secretary Sarah Sanders.
Mattis has determinedly kept a low public profile, striving to stay out of the news and out of Trump’s line of fire.
Those close to him have repeatedly insisted that he would not quit, and would have to either be fired or die in the job. But others have noted that a two-year stint as defense chief is a normal and respectable length of service.
Born in Pullman, Washington, Mattis enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1969, later earning a history degree from Central Washington University. He was commissioned as an officer in 1972. As a lieutenant colonel, he led an assault battalion into Kuwait during the first U.S. war with Iraq in 1991.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Mattis commanded the Marines who launched an early amphibious assault into Afghanistan and established a U.S. foothold in the Taliban heartland. As the first wave of Marines moved toward Kandahar, Mattis declared, “The Marines have landed, and now we own a piece of Afghanistan.”
Two years later, he helped lead the invasion into Iraq in 2003 as the two-star commander of the 1st Marine Division. As a four-star, he led Central Command from 2010 until his retirement in 2013.
The Associated Press contributed to this article