'Keep faith in US' says 'Mad Dog' Jim Mattis on Pentagon exit
After 711 days as defence secretary, Mattis quit in veiled rebuke of Trump's policies
Jim Mattis ended his turbulent tenure as US Secretary of Defence yesterday by re-emphasising a crucial difference with President Donald Trump and encouraging Pentagon employees – civilian and military – to “hold fast” in safeguarding the nation.
Mr Mattis, who resigned on December 20 and was in effect sacked by Mr Trump three days later, spent the day in his Pentagon office preparing to hand over at midnight to Deputy Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
Mr Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, will be acting defence secretary until someone is nominated for the post.
In a written farewell message, Mr Mattis urged all employees to “keep the faith in our country and hold fast, alongside our allies, aligned against our foes”.
Mr Mattis regards allies – including Nato, Japan and South Korea – as being central to US foreign and security policy, a point on which he differed with Mr Trump, who has regularly denigrated allies as unworthy freeloaders.
In his 711 days as defence secretary, Mr Mattis wrestled with a series of surprise, sometimes sudden and often confusing, decisions by Mr Trump, including a presidential tweet in July 2017 saying he would ban transgender people from serving in the military.
Mr Mattis also disagreed with Mr Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. He counted as a victory his persuading Mr Trump to abandon, at least temporarily, his stated instinct to withdraw from Afghanistan. This month, Mr Trump again changed position and ordered a partial withdrawal, overriding Mr Mattis’s objections.
Mr Mattis was also set back by Mr Trump’s tweet on December 8 announcing he had picked the army chief of staff, Gen Mark Milley, to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This not only left the current chairman, Gen Joseph Dunford, as a lame duck until his scheduled retirement in the autumn, but also marked an unusual rejection of advice from his own secretary of defence.
Mr Mattis had recommended Air Force Gen David Goldfein for the job.
The disagreements accumulated, and when Mr Trump decided to pull US troops out of Syria, Mr Mattis submitted a resignation letter he had written days earlier. His decision to quit surprised many in the Pentagon and around the world. Mr Trump himself seemed taken aback and, three days later, tweeted that Mr Shanahan would replace Mr Mattis yesterday, cutting short Mr Mattis’s announced plan to stay until February 28 to ensure a smooth transition.
When he announced Mr Mattis as his choice to lead the Pentagon shortly after his November 2016 election victory, Mr Trump referred to him by his nickname, “Mad Dog”, suggesting he valued an unpredictable, intimidating approach to defence policy.
This turned out not to match the Mattis style, which emphasised respectful collaboration with allies and partners.
In his farewell note, Mr Mattis quoted a one-sentence telegram that Abraham Lincoln sent to the commander of Union forces Ulysses S Grant, on February 1, 1865 in the final weeks of the American civil war. It read: “Let nothing which is transpiring, change, hinder, or delay your military movements, or plans.” On that date, Lincoln signed a joint congressional resolution proposing a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery.
Mr Mattis said he was confident Pentagon employees would remain “undistracted from our sworn mission to support and defend the constitution, while protecting our way of life”.
The former defence secretary has not said publicly what he intends to do next. He has considered returning to his roots in Washington state – he was born in Pullman and raised in Richland. He graduated from Central Washington University in 1971 and then entered the Marine Corps, where he began as a second lieutenant and rose to the rank of four-star general.
He is the first retired general to serve as defence secretary since George Marshall in 1950 and 1951.
His confirmation by the Senate required passage of legislation overriding a prohibition against former US service members who have been out of uniform for less than seven years from holding the Defence Department’s top job. Mr Mattis retired from the Marines in 2013.
David Maxwell, a retired Army colonel who served 30 years in uniform, said the farewell and resignation letters together will “be studied and examined ... for years to come” for lessons in leadership.
Mr Mattis, 68, has not publicly commented on his reasons for resigning, beyond what he wrote in the resignation letter in which he expressed pride at having served with the men and women of the Defence Department, but did not directly thank Mr Trump. He wrote that the president has “the right to have a secretary of defence whose views are better aligned with” his own.
“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,” Mr Mattis wrote.
Mr Shanahan, who has been the Pentagon’s second most senior official since July 19, 2017, had worked for aircraft and defence systems maker Boeing since 1986. His views on strategic issues such as US alliances and the wars in Afghanistan and Syria are largely unknown to the public.
During his Senate confirmation hearing in June 2017, he was criticised by the late John McCain, a Republican senator, for equivocating on whether he favoured providing defensive weaponry to Ukraine in response to Russian activity.
Although he will have the title of acting secretary, Mr Shanahan will hold all the executive and command authorities of a Senate-confirmed secretary, according to his spokesman, Army Lt Col Joe Buccino.
It is rare for the Pentagon to be run by an acting secretary – the last to do so was William H Taft, who served in that capacity for about 60 days in 1989 after president George H W Bush’s initial choice to be defence secretary, John Tower, became mired in controversy and ultimately failed to earn Senate confirmation. Dick Cheney was then nominated and confirmed.
Updated: January 1, 2019 10:05 PM