Why Did James Mattis Resign as Defense Secretary?

On December 19 of last year, Admiral Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met James Mattis for lunch at the Pentagon. Mattis was a day away from resigning as Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, but he tends to keep his own counsel, and he did not suggest to Mullen, his friend and former commander, that he was thinking of leaving.

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But Mullen did think Mattis appeared unusually afflicted that day. Mattis often seemed burdened in his role. His aides and friends say he found the president to be of limited cognitive ability, and of generally dubious character. Now Mattis was becoming more and more isolated in the administration, especially since the defenestration of his closest Cabinet ally, the former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, several months earlier. Mattis and Tillerson had together smothered some of Trump’s more extreme and imprudent ideas. But now Mattis was operating without cover. Trump was turning on him publicly; two months earlier, he had speculated that Mattis might be a Democrat and said, in reference to NATO, “I think I know more about it than he does.” (Mattis, as a Marine general, once served as the supreme allied commander in charge of NATO transformation.)

Mullen told me recently that service in this administration comes with a unique set of hazards, and that Mattis was not unaware of these hazards. “I think back to his ‘Hold the line’ talk, the one that was captured on video,” Mullen said, referring to an impromptu 2017 encounter between Mattis and U.S. troops stationed in Jordan that became a YouTube sensation. In the video, Mattis tells the soldiers, “Our country right now, it’s got problems we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.” Mullen said: “He obviously found himself in a challenging environment.”

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Many generals and admirals worried that sustained exposure to Trump would destroy Mattis, who is perhaps the most revered living marine.

Mullen’s concern for Mattis was shared by many other generals and admirals, active duty and retired, who worried that sustained exposure to Trump would destroy their friend, who is perhaps the most revered living marine. Mattis had maintained his dignity in perilous moments, even as his fellow Cabinet officials were relinquishing theirs. At a ritualized praise session at the White House in June 2017, as the vice president and other Cabinet members abased themselves before the president, Mattis would offer only this generic—but, given the circumstances, dissident—thought: “It’s an honor to represent the men and women of the Department of Defense. We are grateful for the sacrifices our people are making in order to strengthen our military, so our diplomats always negotiate from a position of strength.”

To some of his friends, though, Mattis was beginning to place his reputation at risk. He had, in the fall of 2018, acquiesced to Trump’s deployment of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, and he was becoming contemptuous of a Pentagon press corps that was trying to perform its duty in difficult circumstances.

By last December, Mattis was facing the most urgent crisis of his nearly two years in the Cabinet. Trump had just announced, contrary to his administration’s stated policy, that he would withdraw all American troops from Syria, where they were fighting the Islamic State. This sudden (and ultimately reversed) policy shift posed a dire challenge to Mattis’s beliefs. He had spent much of his career as a fighter in the Middle East. He had battled Islamist extremists and understood the danger they represented. He believed that a retreat from Syria would threaten the security of American troops elsewhere in the region, and would especially threaten America’s allies in the anti-ISIS coalition. These allies would, in Mattis’s view, feel justifiably betrayed by Trump’s decision.

“I had no idea that he was on the precipice of resigning,” Mullen told me. “But I know how strongly he believes in alliances. The practical reasons become moral reasons. Most of us believe that we’ve moved on as a country from being able to do it alone. We may have had dreams about this in 1992 or 1993, but we’ve moved on. We have to have friends and supporters. And we’re talking about Jim Mattis. He’s not going to change his view on this. He’s not going to leave friends and allies on the battlefield.”

That afternoon, Mattis called John Kelly, the former Marine general who was then nearing the end of his calamitous run as Trump’s chief of staff. “I need an hour with the boss,” Mattis said.

The next day, he met Trump in the Oval Office. Mattis made his case for keeping troops in Syria. Trump rejected his arguments. Thirty minutes into the conversation, Mattis told the president, “You’re going to have to get the next secretary of defense to lose to ISIS. I’m not going to do it.” He handed Trump his resignation letter, a letter that would soon become one of the most famous documents of the Trump presidency thus far.

Here is where I am compelled to note that I did not learn any of these details from Mattis himself. Nor did I learn them from his new book, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, which he wrote with the former Marine officer Bing West. The book is an instructive and entertaining leadership manual for executives, managers, and military officers. Mattis is a gifted storyteller, and his advice will be useful to anyone who runs anything. The book is not, however, an account of his time in service to the 45th president.

General James Mattis
General James Mattis, photographed in his office at Stanford University, June 10, 2019 (Christie Hemm Klok)

I’ve known Mattis for many years, and we spent several hours in conversation this summer, at his home in Richland, Washington, and at the Hoover Institution, on the campus of Stanford University. In these conversations, we discussed the qualities of effective leadership, the workings of command-and-feedback loops, the fragility of what he calls the American experiment, fishing the Columbia River, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and many other topics. But about Trump he was mainly silent. I caught glimpses of anger and incredulity, to be sure. But Mattis is a disciplined man. While discipline is an admirable quality, in my conversations with Mattis I found it exasperating, because I believe that the American people should hear his answer to this question: Is Donald Trump fit for command?

He should answer the question well before November 3, 2020. Mattis is in an unparalleled position to provide a definitive answer. During moments of high tension with North Korea, he had worried that being out of reach of the president for more than a few seconds constituted a great risk. No one, with the possible exception of John Kelly, has a better understanding of Donald Trump’s capacities and inclinations, particularly in the realm of national security, than James Mattis.

I made this argument to him during an interview at his home, a modest townhouse in a modest development in a modest town. Mattis, who is 69, is single, and has always been so. His house serves mainly as a library of the literature of war and diplomacy, and as a museum of ceremonial daggers, the residue of a lifetime of official visits to army headquarters across the Middle East. The decor reminded me of one of his sayings: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

I knew that this would be a Gallipoli of an interview, and that Mattis would be playing the role of the Ottoman gunners. But I had to try.

“When you go out on book tour,” I said, “people are going to want you to say things you don’t want to say.” I mentioned a scene from the book, one that concerned an ultimately successful effort to untangle a traffic jam of armored vehicles in Iraq. I noted that while this story is an edifying case study in effective leadership, it is not necessarily the sort of story that people want from him right now.

“Yeah,” he said.

“You’re prepared for that? For people wanting you to talk about Trump?”

He paused.

“Do you know the French concept of devoir de réserve?” he asked.

I did not, I said.

“The duty of silence. If you leave an administration, you owe some silence. When you leave an administration over clear policy differences, you need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country. They still have the responsibility of protecting this great big experiment of ours. I know the malevolence some people feel for this country, and we have to give the people who are protecting us some time to carry out their duties without me adding my criticism to the cacophony that is right now so poisonous.”

“But duty manifests in other ways,” I argued. “You have a First Amendment guarantee to speak your mind—”

“Absolutely.”

“And don’t you have a duty to warn the country if it is endangered by its leader?”

“I didn’t cook up a convenient tradition here,” he said. “You don’t endanger the country by attacking the elected commander in chief. I may not like a commander in chief one fricking bit, but our system puts the commander in chief there, and to further weaken him when we’re up against real threats—I mean, we could be at war on the Korean peninsula, every time they start launching something.”

The subject of North Korea represented my best chance to wrench a direct answer from Mattis. I had collected some of Trump’s more repellent tweets, and read aloud the one that I thought might overwhelm his defenses. It is a tweet almost without peer in the canon:

Mattis looked at his hands. Finally he said, “Any Marine general or any other senior servant of the people of the United States would find that, to use a mild euphemism, counterproductive and beneath the dignity of the presidency.”

He went on, “Let me put it this way. I’ve written an entire book built on the principles of respecting your troops, respecting each other, respecting your allies. Isn’t it pretty obvious how I would feel about something like that?”

It is. When Call Sign Chaos is refracted through the prism of our hallucinatory political moment, it becomes something more than a primer for middle managers. The book is many things, apart from a meditation on leadership. It is the autobiography of a war fighter, and also an extended argument for a forceful, confident, alliance-centered U.S. foreign policy. Read another way, though, it is mainly a 100,000-word subtweet.

When I mentioned this notion to Mattis, he looked at me curiously. He is not closely acquainted with the language of social media. When I explained what a subtweet is, he said, “Well, you saw that my resignation letter is in the book.”

It comes near the end. Each chapter contains a lesson about personal leadership, or American leadership, or some combination of the two: “Coach and encourage, don’t berate, least of all in public.” “Public humiliation does not change our friends’ behavior or attitudes in a positive way.” “Operations occur at the speed of trust.” “Nations with allies thrive, and those without wither.” And then comes the resignation letter, a repudiation of a man who models none of Mattis’s principles:

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 …

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

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.

“I had no choice but to leave,” he told me. “That’s why the letter is in the book. I want people to understand why I couldn’t stay. I’ve been informed by four decades of experience, and I just couldn’t connect the dots anymore.”

Later, during a long walk along the Columbia River, I gave it another go, asking him to describe in broad terms the nature of Trump’s leadership abilities. “I’m happy to talk about leadership,” he said. “My model—one of my models—is George Washington. Washington’s idea of leadership was that first you listen, then you learn, then you help, and only then do you lead. It is a somewhat boring progression, but it’s useful. What you try to do in that learning phase is find common ground.”

“So on one end of the spectrum is George Washington, and at the other end is Donald Trump?”

Mattis smiled. “It’s a beautiful river, isn’t it?” he said. “I used to swim it all the time when I was a kid. Strong current.”

In mid-August I checked in with Mattis, to see whether events over the summer—Trump’s attack on four congresswomen of color; his attack on Representative Elijah Cummings; his attacks on other minorities; his endorsement-by-tweet of the North Korean dictator’s “great and beautiful vision” for his country; the El Paso massacre, conducted by a white supremacist whose words echoed those often used by Trump and his supporters when discussing immigration—might have led him to reconsider his decorous approach to public criticism of the president.

About El Paso he said: “You know, on that day we were all Hispanics. That’s the way we have to think about this. If it happens to any one of us, it happens to all of us.”

But about this treacherous political moment?

“You’ve got to avoid looking at what’s happening in isolation from everything else,” he said. “We can’t hold what Trump is doing in isolation. We’ve got to address the things that put him there in the first place.” Mattis speaks often about affection: the affection that commanders feel for their soldiers, and that soldiers ought to feel for one another—and the affection that Americans should feel for one another and for their country but often, these days, don’t. “ ‘With malice toward none, with charity for all,’ ” he said. “Lincoln said that in the middle of a war. In the middle of a war! He could see beyond the hatred of the moment.”

I thought back to what he’d told me earlier in the summer, when I had asked him to describe something Trump could say or do that would trigger him to launch a frontal attack on the president. He’d demurred, as I had expected. But then he’d issued a caveat: “There is a period in which I owe my silence. It’s not eternal. It’s not going to be forever.”


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