One day after Donald Trump announced the sudden withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria—blindsiding White House advisers and stunning the foreign-policy community, the president tweeted that Secretary of Defense James Mattis, often considered the last adult standing in an increasingly chaotic administration, would be “retiring, with distinction” at the end of February. “During Jim’s tenure, tremendous progress has been made, especially with respect to the purchase of new fighting equipment,” Trump wrote Thursday. “General Mattis was a great help to me in getting allies and other countries to pay their share of military obligations. A new Secretary of Defense will be named shortly. I greatly thank Jim for his service!”
His praise of the general was immediately undercut by Mattis’s own resignation letter, in which the retired four-star general offered an extraordinary rebuke of Trump and Trumpism. “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” Mattis wrote. “Because you have the right to have 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.”
According to reports, Mattis had met with the president in the Oval Office on Thursday afternoon, informed him that he would be resigning, and then delivered his letter. Mattis, once considered among the most influential members of Trump’s Cabinet, will depart the administration on February 28.
With Mattis gone, Trump’s foreign policy is likely to turn both more isolationist and more hawkish. Mattis, as he expressed in his resignation letter, saw America’s role in the world as a pillar of stability. Trump, more often than not, sees himself as a wrecking ball. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both hold more aggressive views on North Korea and Iran. At the same time, Mattis was perhaps the greatest advocate for a continued U.S. presence in the Middle East. According to CNN, Mattis was “vehemently opposed” to Trump’s decision in Syria. News that Trump was considering withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, too, may have been a last straw.
The news capped off an already tumultuous day for the White House, as the president abruptly changed course and rejected a stop-gap spending bill, raising the likelihood that the U.S. government will shut down just in time for Christmas, forcing hundreds of thousands of federal employees to work without pay. The S&P 500, Dow Jones, and other stock indices continued to slip on Thursday, following a decision by the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates and anxieties over Trump’s trade war with China, tipping global markets into correction territory.
Mattis’s exit likewise rounds out a year in which Trump pushed out nearly every moderating presence in the White House. Those staffers once seen as the “adults” in the room—Rex Tillerson, Gary Cohn, Nikki Haley, Jeff Sessions, Dave Shulkin, H.R. McMaster, Don McGahn, and, just last week, Chief of Staff John Kelly—have been picked off one by one, leaving a free-wheeling, self-righteous Trump at the helm of an administration that often appears to be careening into disaster.
Trump himself is under siege, too, as the Russia investigation continues to build steam. Inside the White House, staffers are said to be on edge as they await the next shoe to drop. The special counsel’s final report is expected sometime in the coming months, and with it, the potential for impeachment proceedings. Democrats, who will retake the House of Representatives on January 3, have already lined up dozens of subpoenas and congressional inquiries into the president, his family, associates, and businesses. Meanwhile, a diminished Trump is about to head to Mar-a-Lago for an unusually long 16-day vacation. According to an internal White House e-mail, he will be taking a much smaller retinue with him.
More Great Stories from Vanity Fair
— Why the Democrats won’t rush to impeach Trump
— Joe Lieberman jumps into the U.S.-China trade war
— A guilty plea that should make the N.R.A. feel nervous
— Trump thinks S.N.L. should be challenged in the courts
— A new Time’s Up initiative, courtesy of . . . CBS
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hive newsletter and never miss a story.