Dec 21, 2018
By Phil Stewart and Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – By plainly stating his policy differences in his resignation letter, U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has sparked an incipient challenge to President Donald Trump’s foreign and security agenda that sets his departure apart from scores of others that preceded him.
Mattis, a retired Marine general who was highly regarded by Republicans and Democrats, had far wider political support in Washington than Trump himself when he walked into the White House on Thursday afternoon.
Sources said Mattis had already made up his mind that it was time to go. Later in the afternoon, Trump announced Mattis was retiring, only to be rapidly contradicted as Mattis circulated his eight-paragraph resignation letter.
Even as Washington digested Trump’s surprise decisions this week to remove U.S. troops from Syria and to draw down the military presence in Afghanistan, it was Mattis’ departure and the attendant strategic uncertainty that sources said really vexed officials across the administration and in the U.S. Congress.
It prompted unusually sharp criticism of Trump from his fellow Republicans.
“It’s sadness for our country,” said retiring Republican Senator Bob Corker, adding he thought Mattis’ departure could change how Senate Republicans defend Trump. “We are in a really bad place as it pertains to foreign policy.”
U.S. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he was “distressed” by Mattis’ departure. Senator Lindsey Graham, who has mostly been a staunch Trump ally, called for immediate hearings on Trump’s moves in Syria and Afghanistan and wanted to hear directly from Mattis.
Mattis is the first U.S. defence secretary in decades to explicitly resign over purely policy differences with a president.
His departure is wholly different from that of other top foreign policy and national security officials in the administration who have left, including the president’s unceremonious firing of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Two national security advisors left Trump – but did so from weakened positions.