Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned Thursday after clashing with President Donald Trump over the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and after two years of deep disagreements over America’s role in the world.
Mattis, perhaps the most respected foreign policy official in Trump’s administration, will leave by the end of February after two tumultuous years struggling to soften and moderate the president’s hardline and sometimes sharply changing policies. He told Trump in a letter that he was leaving because “you have a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.”
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 who had never held political office or served in the military. Even Trump allies expressed fear over Mattis’ decision to quit, believing him to be an important moderating force on 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.”
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, a position seemingly at odds with the “America First” policy of the president.
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, and as he continues to consider cutting in half the American deployment in Afghanistan by this summer. The news coincided with domestic turmoil as well, Trump’s fight with Congress over a border wall and a looming partial government shutdown.
Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria has been sharply criticized for abandoning America’s Kurdish allies, who could face a Turkish assault once U.S. troops leave, and had been staunchly opposed by the Pentagon.
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 and others.
“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.
Last year, Republican Sen. Bob Corker—a frequent Trump critic—said Mattis, along with White House chief of staff John Kelly and then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were helping “separate our country from chaos.”
Tillerson was fired early this year. Kelly is to leave the White House in the coming days.
“This is scary,” reacted Senate Intelligence committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., on Twitter. “Secretary Mattis has been an island of stability amidst the chaos of the Trump administration.”
“Jim Mattis did a superb job as Secretary of Defense. But he cannot be expected to stand behind a President who disrespects our allies and ingratiates himself to our adversaries,” said William Cohen, who served as defense secretary under Bill Clinton and knows Mattis well.
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’s often chaotic national security decisions and to soften some of Trump’s sharper tones with allies.
Opponents of Mattis, however, have seen him as an unwanted check on Trump.
Mattis went to the White House Thursday afternoon to resign after failing to persuade the president in a tense 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.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
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,” press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
At the start of the Trump administration, the president had gushed about his respect for Mattis, repeatedly calling him “Mad Dog,” despite Mattis’ own public insistence that the moniker was never his. Instead, his nickname for years was CHAOS, which stood for “Colonel Has An Outstanding Suggestion,” and reflected Mattis’ more cerebral nature.
The two quickly clashed on major policy decisions.
During his first conversations with Trump about the Pentagon job, Mattis made it clear that he disagreed with his new boss in two areas: He said torture doesn’t work, despite Trump’s assertion during the campaign that it did, and he voiced staunch support for traditional U.S. international alliances, including NATO, which Trump repeatedly criticized.
Mattis was credited by some in the administration for blocking an executive order that would have reopened CIA interrogation “black sites.” Trump has said the Pentagon chief convinced him it wasn’t necessary to bring back banned torture techniques like waterboarding.
En route to his first visit to Iraq as defense secretary, Mattis bluntly rebuffed Trump’s assertion that America might take Iraqi oil as compensation for U.S. efforts in the war-torn country.
The two also were divided on the future of the Afghanistan war, with Trump complaining from the first about its cost and arguing for withdrawal. Mattis and others ultimately persuaded Trump to pour additional resources and troops into the conflict to press toward a resolution.
U.S. officials say there now is active planning in the Pentagon that would pull as many as half the 14,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by summer. They say no final decision has been made.
Trump also chafed at the Pentagon’s slow response to his order to ban transgender people from serving in the military. That effort has stalled due to multiple legal challenges.
More recently, Trump bypassed Mattis’ choice for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief, was Mattis’ top choice, but Trump chose Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of the Army
The Pentagon has appeared to be caught off guard by a number of Trump policy declarations, often made through Twitter. Those include plans that ultimately fizzled to have a big military parade this month and the more recent decision to send thousands of active duty troops to the Southwest border.
Mattis has steadfastly 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.
Five members of the YMCA of North Rock County are demanding more transparency, saying several members have been suspended and three board members dismissed after asking questions about the Y’s finances, the structure of its board of directors and its bylaws.
In a letter written by a group calling itself “Concerned Y Members,” the members say they’re concerned over an apparent “lack of transparency” of the nonprofit YMCA’s leadership and what they call the “wrongful dismissal” of three Y board members between 2017 and 2018.
The letter is undersigned by 52 people who are Y members or former members, and a few are former Y board members, said Janesville resident Paul Murphy, one of five in the Concerned Members group.
Murphy’s name is signed to an email that accompanied the letter. It was addressed Thursday to various YMCA board members.
Over the last year, the group claims, the Y has canceled, suspended or put under review “numerous” memberships for “questionable reasons” while offering “no sound explanation” for their suspensions.
“The YMCA is a vital component of the community and has a long tradition of receiving community support. We strongly believe this support is being tested due to repeated actions and inactions by YMCA leadership that run contrary to the mission and values of the organization,” the letter states.
In an interview Thursday, Murphy, a longtime Y member, told The Gazette his membership was put under “review” Dec. 3.
Murphy said he later received an email from YMCA CEO Tom Den Boer telling Murphy that while his membership was being reviewed, Murphy was not allowed to enter the Y in downtown Janesville or in Milton. If he did, the Y and authorities could consider it “trespassing,” Murphy said.
Den Boer is in charge of reviewing Y members who are under suspension, Murphy said. He said Den Boer offered to meet, but Murphy said the Y denied Murphy’s request for documentation that showed why he was suspended.
Murphy said his membership suspension went in place a day after Murphy asked the Y’s board for information on the Y’s financial filings, the Y’s current bylaws, how people could get considered for board membership and the date of a Y meeting when members would vote to seat new members on the Y’s board.
Murphy said neither he nor any member of the Y he has talked to could ever find any posting or notification at the Y of the last member meeting to elect new board members.
Murphy said he asked for the information twice prior to Dec. 3, and prior to his suspension, he said, he never received documents he had asked for.
“I have no idea why I was suspended,” Murphy said. “It’s ironic, though, that around 4 p.m. of Dec. 2, I made my second request to the board on how you’d get on the board for seats whose terms are up.”
Den Boer and the Y’s incoming board President Jeff Jensen, did not immediately respond Thursday to an inquiry by The Gazette.
Others, the Thursday letter implies, had requested in early 2018 that the Y provide financial documents including tax filings for its operations and its charitable foundation. As a legally registered nonprofit organization, the Y is required to make available financial tax documents along with its bylaws, board meeting documents and meeting minutes, according to the letter.
Murphy said to his knowledge the Y has not given anyone in his group access to the Y’s financial filings or other documents.
The letter also claims a group of YMCA members, including former board members, met with the Y’s board in January 2018 to discuss “financial and organizational concerns” and “public image.”
The letter says the Y’s board “took no action” on the meeting, even after those in the meeting gave Den Boer a memo about “concerns of financial transparency, accountability, use of authority and public image.”
The letter said it took the board’s then-president, Jason Engledow, six months to respond to the concerns. When he responded, he simply asked for a list of names of people who attended the meeting but did not provide a phone number where he could be reached.
The letter claims, the Y “wrongfully dismissed” one board member in March 2017 and another in early 2018. Engledow told the board members they were dismissed, according to the letter. In July 2018, Engledow “unilaterally dismissed” a third board member, according to the letter.
Murphy said he and others in his group believe the dismissals were done without a board vote, a move he said goes against a set of YMCA bylaws he said he had received only after he was suspended from the Y.
The letter asks the Y for a laundry list of information, including names and addresses of current Y members, audited financial statements, bylaws and amendments to them, minutes from board meetings, documents that discuss or detail the past “termination” of three board members and other documents.
He said his group also wants to meet with Y board members to discuss its concerns.
The letter also says the group has turned its concerns over to the state resource director for the YMCA of the USA. The letter asks for the Y’s board to consider “review of its internal operations and governance immediately to better organize its fiduciary responsibilities,” which the group suggests could be done through an “outside consultant” to “ensure board members aren’t intimidated.”
Robert Eugene Fritz
Kayla Marie Ann Kirchner
LaVern M. Schoonover
Morris W. Shepherd
Gene L. Taylor