Defense Secretary James Mattis, the first Pentagon chief to resign in protest, wrote a rather brutal resignation letter to Donald Trump last week, calling into question the president’s judgment, values, and respect for American allies. It set the stage for an awkward dynamic: how exactly would Mattis maintain his role in the administration until his announced departure date in late February?
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week, in reference to Mattis, that we could expect a smooth transition. “Let’s not forget, he is not just walking out the door,” she said. “This will be orderly process and continue to be a good relationship over the next couple of months.”
No, actually, it won’t. The New York Times reported:
Less than two hours after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis went to the White House on Thursday to hand a resignation letter to President Trump, the president stood in the Oval Office and dictated a glowing tweet announcing that Mr. Mattis was retiring “with distinction” at the end of February.
But Mr. Trump had not read the letter. As became apparent to the president only after days of news coverage, a senior administration official said, Mr. Mattis had issued a stinging rebuke of Mr. Trump over his neglect of allies and tolerance of authoritarians. The president grew increasingly angry as he watched a parade of defense analysts go on television to extol Mr. Mattis’s bravery, another aide said, until he decided on Sunday that he had had enough.
A Trump confidant, reflecting on the president’s reluctance to read important documents put in front of him, said last year, “I call the president the two-minute man. The president has patience for a half-page.”
Mattis’ resignation letter was about a page and a half. Is it any wonder Trump waited for television pundits to tell him what it said?
Over the holiday weekend, apparently annoyed by news coverage, the president decided it was time to launch an offensive against the retired four-star general, including a tweet in which Trump asserted that Mattis didn’t care about foreign allies taking advantage of the United States.
Or put another way, Trump, after disappointing the most respected and celebrated member of his own cabinet, convinced himself that he could look better by trying to make Mattis look worse.
As is too often the case, the president was mistaken.
Postscript: Trump directed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to tell Mattis his tenure would end two months ahead of schedule. It served as a reminder that this president loves firing people – so long as he’s not the one doing the firing.