Defense Secretary James Mattis, the retired four-star Marine general who was one of the last senior military figures in the Trump administration, is resigning and will leave his post at the end of February.
His two-page resignation letter, released after an afternoon meeting with Mr. Trump at the White House, implied there were stark differences with the president on the need for alliances and his overall foreign policy.
Mr. Trump on Twitter praised Mr. Mattis and made not mention of policy clashes with one of his Cabinet’s best-known figures.
“General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February, after having served my administration as Secretary of Defense for the past two years,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “… General Mattis was a great help to me in getting allies and other countries to pay their share of military obligations.
Mr. Trump said a new defense secretary would be named “shortly.”
Mr. Mattis‘ departure comes a day after Mr. Trump announced plans to withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Syria, supporting the ongoing fight against the Islamic State. In his letter to Mr. Trump, Mr. Mattis made clear he was resigning, not retiring, from his position at the Pentagon.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours … I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” Mr. Mattis wrote, indicating Feb. 28th would be his final day at the Defense Department. “I pledge my full effort in a smooth transition that ensures the needs and the interests of the 2.1 million service members and 732,079 DoD civilians receive undistracted attention from the department at all times,” he added.
But White House adviser Stephen Miller insisted on CNN that Mr. Mattis‘ is retiring, not resigning in protest.
“At the same time, the president is entitled to a secretary of Defense that has strong alignment with his views,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s very normal at this point in the administration to have turnover.”
He said Mr. Mattis had made clear from the beginning that he didn’t intend to serve for the whole administration.
“This is an opportunity for the whole country to get a new secretary of Defense who will be aligned with the president on these critical issues, whether you’re talking about Syria, whether you’re talking about across the Middle East in general, whether you’re talking about other countries paying their fair share, and the whole America First agenda of this president.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican who harshly criticized Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, tweeted at the president late Thursday, “I admire and share your love and admiration for our troops. The troops believe in their commanders and so should you.”
Oklahoma Republican and Senate Armed Services committee chair Sen. Jim Inhofe said the resignation was “a shock to everyone,” in a statement released Thursday night. “A career Marine with the nickname of ‘Mad Dog,’ [Mr. Mattis] was genuine, gentle and understanding. He was devoted to the warfighter, military families and veterans. I always valued our close working relationship and our nation is better for his lifetime of service, Sen. Inhofe said.
Florida Republican and former presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio said filling Mr. Mattis‘ shoes at the Pentagon will be no easy feat.
“For the sake of our national security I hope his decision to resign was motivated solely by a desire to enjoy a well-deserved retirement,” Sen. Rubio said in a social media post.
Virginia Republican Sen. Mark Warner characterized Mr. Mattis‘ retirement as “scary,” saying in a Twitter post that Mr. Mattis “has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.”
“As we’ve seen with the President’s haphazard approach to Syria, our national defense is too important to be subjected to the President’s erratic whims,” he added.
Mr. Mattis‘, along with other top U.S. defense officials were reportedly against the move, arguing the terror group could still pose a serious threat to American allies in the Middle East. The Syria decision was one of several taken by the Trump White House, over the opposition of Mr. Mattis and other top national security officials.
Mr. Mattis did not mention the Syria decision in his letter to the White House but did emphasize the fact that U.S. alliances across the globe were critical to American defense and national security, a position that has been at odds with Mr. Trump’s transactional approach to forging and fostering international alliances.
“We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values,” Mr. Mattis wrote. “We are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.”
Speculation over Mr. Mattis‘ dimming future in the administration had heightened after the announcement of White House Chief of Staff and former Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly earlier this month. The end of Mr. Mattis‘ tenure in the Trump administration marks the last former general officer to leave a White House post.
Former general Michael Flynn quit after only a month as White House national security adviser after he admitted misleading Vice President Mike Pence about the extent of his contacts with Russian officials. Flynn is awaiting sentencing for lying to the FBI in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.
Army Gen. H.R. McMaster succeeded Flynn as national security adviser, but he clashed with Mr. Trump and lasted less than a year in the post.
Mr. Kelly began in the administration as Homeland Security secretary and was tapped in July 2017 as White House chief of staff to bring more discipline to the West Wing. Mr. Trump announced that Mr. Kelly will leave his post at the end of this year.
• David Boyer and Guy Taylor contributed to this report.
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