Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will retire at the end of February, according to a late Thursday tweet from President Trump. His retirement, which has been rumored for some time, caps a series of departures from Trump’s national security team this year, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Mattis was seen as one of the last “establishment” figures on Trump’s team, increasingly dominated by more Trump-aligned figures like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.
Trump initially seemed excited to pick Mattis, a four-star Marine general who served in three wars and was commander of U.S. Central Command during the Obama administration, repeatedly using his nickname “Mad Dog” (a moniker Mattis reportedly never liked), but the two have frequently been at odds.
At times, particularly early on, Mattis could be a moderating influence on Trump, talking him out of his initial support for torturing terrorism suspects, for instance. He also won a debate with then–senior adviser Steve Bannon over deploying more troops to Afghanistan. But Trump also repeatedly overruled Mattis on issues such as withdrawing from the Iran deal and moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Trump frequently surprised Mattis by announcing policy changes without consulting him, including canceling joint military exercises with South Korea and ordering a ban on transgender troops in the U.S. military. Trump had reportedly started referring to Mattis as “Moderate Dog” behind closed doors in recent months.
The announcement of his retirement, notably, comes just after Trump announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, a deployment Mattis has strongly supported continuing. For all he was often described as a moderating influence, Mattis was often more hawkish than his boss.
In his letter notifying Trump of his resignation, Mattis pointedly referred to the necessity of being “resolute and unambiguous in our approach” to authoritarian countries like China and Russia and the importance of “treating allies with respect” and the “solidarity of alliances.” He continued, “You have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects.”
His retirement will alarm NATO allies and national security leaders in Washington who saw him as a steadying hand on the Trump administration’s often chaotic foreign policy. Given how chaotic it’s been with him in place, the amount of influence Mattis actually had over Trump is an open question, and we’ll soon have a much better idea of the answer.