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After Mattis’ resignation, a president unbound and an anxious capital

Trump, officials said, also decided on deep cuts in the 14,000 troops serving in Afghanistan — a war he long derided as a misadventure and only grudgingly agreed to continue under pressure from Mattis, among others.

By: New York Times | Washington | Published: December 21, 2018 9:27:52 am
After Mattis’ resignation, a president unbound and an anxious capital The US Capitol in Washington, the evening Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced his resignation. (Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times)

Written by: Mark Landler

For most of his tumultuous 23 months in office, President Donald Trump has tried to shake off anyone who would restrain his insurgent style of leadership. With the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Trump is at last a president unbound.

Even for some Republicans, this was a deeply unsettling prospect, especially after a week in which Trump rejected a deal to keep the government running, openly criticized the Federal Reserve for raising interest rates, and announced that the United States would pull 2,000 troops out of Syria, without consulting allies or warning Congress.

That last decision prompted Mattis to quit after he could not persuade Trump to reverse course, and the defense secretary left little doubt in his resignation letter that he viewed the president as a threat to the world order the United States helped construct.

And it all played out at a moment Trump is awash in investigations of possible collusion between Russia and his campaign, inquiries into his business and his family foundation, and allegations that he directed his former lawyer to pay hush money to two women with whom he is alleged to have had affairs.

If there was a common thread in Trump’s actions, it was his unswerving conviction that his political survival depends on securing his conservative base. Those supporters have pounded him relentlessly in recent weeks for his failure to build a border wall with Mexico — one of the bedrock promises he made during his improbable journey to the White House.

After Mattis’ resignation, a president unbound and an anxious capital Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confer as President Donald Trump met with President Xi Jinping of China at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., April, 7, 2017. Mattis left little doubt in his resignation letter that he viewed the president as a threat to the world order the United States helped construct. (Doug Mills/New York Times)

He rejected the stopgap budget deal because it failed to fund the wall. He criticized the Fed because its policy is dampening the stock market, which until recently he viewed as a barometer of his success. And he pulled troops out of Syria because it fulfilled a campaign promise to extract the United States from foreign wars.

Trump, officials said, also decided on deep cuts in the 14,000 troops serving in Afghanistan — a war he long derided as a misadventure and only grudgingly agreed to continue under pressure from Mattis, among others.

In a tweet, Trump offered Mattis perfunctory thanks and promised to name a new defense secretary soon. But this was no mere personnel shake-up: Mattis was arguably the last and most important of the officials that Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., once called “those people that help separate our country from chaos.”

The other two — former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly — also fell afoul of Trump. He fired Tillerson and forced out Kelly before embarking on a messy process to find a successor from a cast of unwilling candidates.

As members of Congress and his own administration digested the implications of this latest departure, the White House projected defiance. Trump, his aides said, was merely delivering on his promise to shake up the political establishment.

“The American people voted for a president, Donald Trump, who’s very tough, very strong, very aggressive on terrorism,” his chief domestic adviser, Stephen Miller, said on CNN. “Let’s defend our national security. Let’s put America first. Let’s not spill American blood to fight the enemies of other countries.”

Lawmakers from both parties expressed alarm at Trump’s actions.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, accused him of throwing a “Trump temper tantrum,” which he said was “plunging the country into chaos.” Mattis had been one of the few “islands of stability” in a storm-tossed administration, he said.

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who challenged Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, said on Twitter that Mattis’ resignation “makes it abundantly clear that we are headed towards a series of grave policy errors which will endanger our nation, damage our alliances & empower our adversaries.”

Just as critically for Trump, he has been harshly criticized by supporters who are influential with his conservative voters, including Ann Coulter, the right-wing commentator, and Rush Limbaugh, the radio host, for not being more aggressive about building a border wall, even if it risked shutting down the government.

On Wednesday night, Coulter predicted that Trump either would not serve out his term or would fail to get re-elected; he unfollowed her on Twitter a short time later.

Similar political considerations drove Trump’s decision on Syria. He calculated that pulling out American soldiers would be a way to fulfill a campaign pledge, at a time when he was being forced to compromise on the wall.

Mattis, several officials said, had talked Trump out of announcing the withdrawal before the midterm elections, in part by promising to give him options for a drawdown. It was the latest of several internal debates in which Mattis and other aides stalled a president who had made no secret of his desire to pull out of Syria.

But with Christmas coming, his political base increasingly restive and a cloud of legal troubles enveloping the White House, the president decided to pull the trigger now, calculating that it would deliver him a quick win.

Trump’s eagerness to slip the leash of his handlers was apparent in the days leading up to the troop decision.

Last Friday, aides prepped him on delivering a blunt message to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Turkish troops must not cross into neighboring Syria to go after Kurdish fighters there because it would interfere with the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State.

Instead, officials briefed on the call said, Trump told Erdogan that the terrorists of ISIS had been vanquished and that the United States would pull its troops out of Syria any day.

That off-script conversation laid bare a deeper rift between Trump and his national security team — a rift that spilled dramatically into the open Wednesday when he abruptly pulled the plug on the 4-year-old mission.

“We’ve been thinking that as the walls close in around Trump, we would have a ‘Wag the Dog’ scenario where he starts to lash out,” said Derek H. Chollet, a top Pentagon official in the Obama administration. “But it won’t be getting us into wars — it will be the opposite.”

“We shouldn’t be surprised if we wake up one morning soon and he’s tweeted that we’re beginning the process of getting out of NATO, or bringing troops home from South Korea,” he said.

Mattis was not alone in opposing the president’s move: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, also did not support it. Bolton’s predecessor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, argued in favor of staying in Syria, telling Trump in one meeting that the United States had not suffered a single casualty there for the previous 12 months, according to a person who was there.

That mollified Trump for a few months. But after the midterm elections, he raised the prospect again.

“The Russia investigation, Michael Cohen, Mike Flynn’s sentencing and the stock market crash all played a part,” said Kori Schake, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush and the author of a book with Mattis.

“Two years into this administration, we need to stop giving the president the benefit of the doubt when we look at his national security decision-making,” she said. “This was political.”

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