Lots of Cabinet officials – and I mean LOTS – have either resigned or been fired by President Donald Trump in his first 20 months in office. But no one has quit in quite the same way as Defense Secretary James Mattis did Thursday night.
“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 wrote to Trump in a pointed two-page letter that he hand-delivered to the commander in chief earlier Thursday afternoon.
And then, this:
“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. While the US 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.”
In that single paragraph, which sums up the sentiment of the longer letter, Mattis rejects out of hand Trump’s “America First” foreign policy that had led to clashes with a slew of longtime allies – from Germany to Britain to Australia and back. From Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord to his recent announcement that the United States would be leaving Syria – a decision with which Mattis disagreed – Trump has shown time and time again that he rejects the post-World War II alliance structure that presidents, Republican and Democratic, have relied upon for more than seven decades.
It’s impossible to read Mattis’ letter as evidence of anything but a man who had been pushed well past his breaking point and, finally, snapped. Faced with a President who made enemies of our allies and allies of our enemies – no one has arguably been happier with the Trump presidency than Russian President Vladimir Putin – Mattis decided to walk away.
Which is remarkable, both by itself and when you consider the broader context of how and where Mattis fit into the Trump Cabinet and administration.
In a vacuum, Mattis was widely regarded by those familiar with his approach to the office as someone who simply would not walk away without a very good reason. A much-decorated military general, Mattis was part of a group within the Trump administration – that once included chief of staff John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – who viewed their roles in the administration as a duty to the country.
Step back and you see Mattis’ departure as a sort of bookend to Tillerson’s removal as secretary of state, with Kelly’s removal sandwiched in between. Together, those three men were cast – by Trump and his allies – as the crown jewels of the administration, men who had long experience in Washington and around the world and who, together, would form a shield of sorts against Trump’s worst instincts in diplomacy and foreign policy.
Trump tired of Tillerson first. Once enthralled by Tillerson’s time spent as a titan of industry (he was the CEO of ExxonMobil), Trump came to view Tillerson as someone who didn’t understand that his job was to execute the vision of the chief executive – period.