MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
General Jim Mattis will be retiring with distinction at the end of February - those words delivered in a tweet by President Trump a short time ago. Shortly after that, the Pentagon released a letter of resignation from Mattis addressed to the president. The letter makes clear that Mattis disagrees with Trump on many key issues. And Mattis wrote, quote, "you have a right to a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects. I believe it is right for me to step down from my position," end quote.
Joining me now is NPR national security correspondent David Welna. And, David, what was the breaking point for General Mattis?
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Mary Louise, I think there's no doubt that the president's decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria and suspend the air campaign there yesterday is what prompted this decision. It was known that Secretary Mattis was quite unhappy with that decision. I was traveling with Secretary Mattis two weeks ago. He was at a defeat ISIS coalition meeting in Ottawa, and he said that it's not enough to just defeat the enemy in Syria in the places where they've been occupying, that there has to be follow-through. He clearly thought that we needed to have a residual force at least in Syria, and that was the thinking that many generals at the Pentagon shared with him.
But I think another thing that may have prompted this resignation is word that Tom Bowman, our colleague at the Pentagon, reported yesterday that President Trump is considering drawing down troops in Afghanistan as well. And that goes very much against what Mattis had recommended - that there be an ongoing presence there.
KELLY: All right, so if these are the two latest things that may have been proven breaking points, it's worth noting that there's a long history of disagreement between these two.
WELNA: Yes. This, I think, really was the last straw. But I think that if you look at Mattis' resignation letter, he's a bit elliptical about things, but he does say - and I'm quoting now - "we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively in the world without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies." He seems referring to a certain neglect of allies, be that those allies NATO in Europe or perhaps the Kurds in Syria. He doesn't say explicitly.
He also says, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model. And that sounds like a rebuke as well. But there were many other things that really kind of blindsided, I think, the defense secretary.
This president announced that the U.S. was suspending war games with South Korea when he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un back in June. That took Mattis by surprise. The announcement of a space force is something that Mattis did not want, Trump saying that transgender troops would not be able to serve was another thing that caught Mattis by surprise. And also Mattis was very much against naming John Bolton as the national security adviser. The two of them had not gotten along before, and it's not very clear that they've gotten along since then.
KELLY: As I recall, Mattis also opposed sending U.S. troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. And we could - I keep going with this list. I mean, it's very rare for a member of the president's cabinet to resign on principle, for a defense secretary to resign on principle.
KELLY: What's the precedent?
WELNA: Yes, it's been 40 years since that happened. Cyrus Vance, the secretary of state for Jimmy Carter, quit over principles. But since then, no other secretary of state has done so. It's notable also that in his resignation letter, Mattis did not explicitly thank President Trump for having chosen him for this job.
KELLY: No. I noticed his parting line was that he appreciates the opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform, as you say, not mentioning the president. That's NPR's David Welna. Thanks very much.
WELNA: You're welcome.
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