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Defense Secretary Mattis resigns, citing differences over the role of alliances

A day after President Trump announced a surprise decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Secretary of Defense James Mattis submitted his resignation, which will take effect in February. The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Gordon joins Judy Woodruff to discuss why the policy differences between the president and Mattis were “too profound” to allow a sustainable working relationship.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We begin with word that Defense Secretary James Mattis is stepping down from his post at the end of February.

    President Trump tweeted the news this evening, a day after he went against Mattis' advice, in announcing a U.S. withdrawal from Syria.

    In his resignation letter, Mattis he is leaving because — quote — "You have the right to have a secretary of defense whose views are better aligned with yours."

    Longtime Pentagon reporter Michael Gordon of The Wall Street Journal joins me now.

    Michael Gordon, what happened?

  • Michael Gordon:

    Well, I think the differences between Secretary Mattis and President Trump are just too profound really to be bridged.

    I think Mattis was a good Marine for a while and played along and certainly in public defended the administration's position. But I think Syria really was the last straw, because the way in which President Trump ordered out the 2,000-odd American troops in Syria is not the way the U.S. military would do it. And from the military's perspective, it puts all of their hard-earned gains in jeopardy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But it wasn't, as you're suggesting, just over the decision on Syria, which came as a surprise, was it? It was over other things as well.

  • Michael Gordon:

    There have been tensions which have been obvious to people at the Pentagon who have watched these two individuals for a while.

    In the resignation letter, Secretary Mattis made it clear that he's a strong supporter of alliances. It's really an essential component of his strategy to counter Russia and China. Well, President Trump had a penchant to criticize the allies.

    Secretary Mattis had — was overruled when he recommended General Goldfein to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Trump picked Mark Milley of the Army instead.

    I mean, I think there's — it's not merely that he didn't get his way. I think there's a sense that his counsel and advice on matters that are really in the province of the secretary of defense were not being sufficiently taken into account.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Gordon, we're also hearing today through Reuters News Service that there's talk by the administration of a dramatic pullout of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

    Do we know whether that might have played a role in this?

  • Michael Gordon:

    Well, I don't know if that played a role. It's not referenced in his letter.

    But also — my colleagues at The Wall Street Journal also had that story, along with Reuters, and they noted they're looking at a withdrawal of up to 14,000. We know that President Trump has long been uneasy about keeping American troops in Afghanistan, and essentially had to be talked into it by Secretary Mattis, by the generals, by H.R. McMaster, when he was the national security adviser.

    And now those voices are gone. And it's really striking, because President Trump came in office touting the generals. And now General Kelly, General — well, Secretary Mattis, retired four-star Marine general, and H.R. McMaster, the generals are all gone.

    And, you know, they tend to be a voice at least of pragmatism and moderation in an administration that is often more ideological.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that's my question. Mattis was seen pretty widely as a stabilizing force in this administration, serving this president. So what could his departure mean?

  • Michael Gordon:

    Well, you know, there's — President Trump has sort of shown a tendency to surround himself with people that agree with him.

    When he dispatched Secretary Tillerson from the State Department, and picked Secretary Pompeo, he said, I want — he agrees with me.

    He really likes to surround himself with people who are sort of like-minded. I think there's a real danger in that. I think it's much better to have different views within your own Cabinet. Of course, the president is the commander in chief. We don't really know, you know, whether he's going to opt for Senator Cotton or who he might pick to be the next defense secretary, but he claims to have a candidate in mind.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, that is a natural question. Who are — as you survey the horizon, who out there might have views that are more in alignment with the president's?

  • Michael Gordon:

    Well, I think — you know, I don't know that you could ever get someone who would have a perfect match, but the kind of people who have been speculated about in the past is Tom Cotton, who's, you know, former Army officer.

    He's very conservative, certainly well-versed on military issues. Occasionally, people have mentioned Jack Keane, the former Army vice chief of staff. But I heard a few months ago that he isn't particularly interested in the job.

    So the allies are going to be very anxious about this decision, because, even though President Trump used to call Mattis "Mad Dog" Mattis, he was anything but a mad dog in the way he performed his duties. He was really cautious about the use of force, cautious when it was used in Syria, not looking for a fight with Iran.

    You know, he was, indeed, a voice of moderation, and I think allied powers and maybe even some of the United States adversaries are going to be wondering what comes next.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And in a word, Michael Gordon, a shock at the Pentagon that this has happened, or not?

  • Michael Gordon:

    No, not a shock. There's been enormous speculation about, is Mattis going to last the administration? And most people thought he wouldn't. People thought he would perhaps make President Trump fire him, rather than leave, because of his own sense of duty.

    But I think the Syria decision, which the military sees as putting at risk the campaign against ISIS, when it's really in its final phase, I think, is something that would be hard for any secretary of defense to swallow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Michael Gordon, Pentagon reporter for The Wall Street Journal, thank you, Michael.

  • Michael Gordon:

    All right, thank you.

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