© 2021 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
News Partners

The Many Conflicts Between Defense Secretary Mattis And President Trump


Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis resigned yesterday after President Trump's order to pull U.S. forces from Syria and reduce troop levels in Afghanistan. Mattis disagreed with both decisions. There were many conflicts between the retired Marine general and the commander in chief. NPR's David Welna looks back at some of them.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Secretary Mattis sent his resignation letter to the man who, at a post-election rally in Cincinnati, boasted of having chosen him for defense secretary.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Mad Dog. He's great. He is great.

WELNA: That tough guy nickname for Mattis, which the retired general himself detests, seemed to captivate then President-elect Trump.


TRUMP: They say he's the closest thing to General George Patton that we have, and it's about time. It's about time.

WELNA: Comparing Mattis' soft-spoken and well-read warrior-scholar to old blood and guts as Patton was known revealed just how little Trump actually knew about this man he'd never met before interviewing him to be defense secretary. So says Mara Karlin, who was a senior adviser to five other defense secretaries.

MARA KARLIN: If he didn't understand who Secretary Mattis is, then I have to assume he didn't spend a whole lot of time doing research on him.

WELNA: In one of the few extended interviews Mattis granted while defense secretary, he told CBS last year that he made it clear to Trump in that job interview how much he valued NATO, the multination defense alliance that Trump had repeatedly demeaned during his campaign.


SEC OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS: He brought up his questions about NATO. And my response was that I thought that if we didn't have NATO, that he would want to create it because it's a defense our values. It's a defense of democracy. He was very open to that.

WELNA: Or so it may have seemed at the time. Trump, in fact, never stopped accusing other NATO members of being freeloaders. Here's Trump in an October interview on CBS's 60 Minutes when asked about Mattis' contention that the purpose of NATO is to prevent World War III.


TRUMP: I like General Mattis. I think I know more about it than he does. And I know more about it from the standpoint of fairness - that I can tell you.

WELNA: This is not the first time Mattis has left a job early. His hawkish views on Iran cost him his post as head of the U.S. Central Command during the Obama administration. Still, Mattis defended one of Obama's biggest legacies last year when Maine independent Senator Angus King pressed him about the Iran nuclear deal, a pact known as the JCPOA, which Trump, as with NATO, had repeatedly derided.


ANGUS KING: Do you believe it's in our national security interests, at the present time, to remain in the JCPOA? That's a yes or no question.

MATTIS: Mattis paused a full five seconds before answering.


MATTIS: Yes, Senator. I do.

WELNA: That was seven months before Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump appears to have blindsided Mattis by announcing, unexpectedly, at his Singapore summit in June with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that upcoming US military exercises would be suspended. By late August, Mattis seemed confident that this had simply been a one-off episode.

MATTIS: We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises.

WELNA: And yet another major military exercise was suspended in mid-October. Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says Mattis has had little choice but to bow to Trump's wishes.

CHUCK HAGEL: You've got to, pretty generally, be on the same page with your commander in chief. That's the person you work for. Everyone is expendable except the president.

WELNA: Mattis did try to insulate the Pentagon from Trump's America First agenda, and although he did order active duty troops to the border with Mexico as Trump had demanded, he kept up military alliances abroad. He prevailed for a time, persuading Trump that more U.S. forces were needed in Syria and Afghanistan. After Senator John McCain died in August, Mattis publicly and somewhat defiantly praised the former prisoner of war, whose heroism Trump had himself belittled.

MATTIS: Senator McCain never lost sight of our shared purpose in defense of freedom. For in his words - and I quote, "a shared purpose does not claim our identity. It enlarges. On the contrary, it enlarges your sense of self."

WELNA: Words that might well describe Mattis' own sense of mission in the job he is now leaving. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.