As with most things in the White House these days, the news arrived with a pre-Christmas tweet. Following the unrest over Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis’ resignation and the subsequent publication of his letter informing the President of his reasons, Donald Trump has moved to remove him early and name an acting replacement.
I am pleased to announce that our very talented Deputy Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, will assume the title of Acting Secretary of Defense starting January 1, 2019. Patrick has a long list of accomplishments while serving as Deputy, & previously Boeing. He will be great!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2018
I’d like to say I’m surprised, but at this point, nothing involving rotations in White House staffing has the ability to surprise us very much. The New York Times jumped on the story as yet more evidence of the President’s temperamental nature.
President Trump said on Sunday that he would remove Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who issued a stinging rebuke of the president when he announced his resignation last week, from his post by Jan. 1, two months before he had planned to depart.
Mr. Trump, in a Twitter post, said that Patrick M. Shanahan, Mr. Mattis’s deputy, would serve as the acting defense secretary.
Aides said that the president was furious that Mr. Mattis’s resignation letter — in which he rebuked the president’s rejection of international allies and his failure to check authoritarian governments — had led to days of negative news coverage. Mr. Mattis resigned in large part over Mr. Trump’s hasty decision to withdraw American forces from Syria.
Being “furious about the letter” is one thing, but Jen Griffin at Fox News hears that there are a couple of layers to this onion. The release of the letter generated a ton of positive news coverage for Mattis, praising his character and commitment, etc. This cast Trump in a less than favorable light, kicking off yet another bad news cycle and he was particularly unhappy about that.
This was not Mattis’ idea, to leave Jan 1. I am told that President annoyed by all of the positive Mattis coverage and decided to act, pushing Mattis out early, making Patrick Shanahan acting Defense Secretary Jan 1.
— Jennifer Griffin (@JenGriffinFNC) December 23, 2018
During most of the ongoing personnel transitions, I’ve tended to mostly shrug my shoulders. The fact remains that anyone in the Cabinet or other White House positions works at the pleasure of the President. When he says it’s time to go, you grab your things and vacate your office. But there’s simply no denying that this move casts the President in a very poor light indeed.
First, there is Mattis’ sterling record of service to his country… a lifetime of honorable service which had actually been completed until Donald Trump asked him to come back from retirement and serve the country once more. His term as SecDef was not marked by politics or hyperbole, but a dedication to maximizing the potential and effectiveness of our nation’s military. Despite rumored personal disagreements with the President over policy, he carried out his duties without drama for the most part.
Trump’s decision regarding pulling out of Syria (and Afghanistan, I’m sure) was clearly the straw that broke the camel’s back. To be fair, we could say that Mattis’ decision to have an aide make multiple copies of his resignation letter and distribute them, doubtless knowing they would end up in the press, was a bit of a jab at the President. But was it enough to justify this decision to essentially “fire” him after he’d already resigned?
After the lifetime of service that James Mattis has given to his country, if he wanted to leave in February (allowing sufficient time for a thorough search for and vetting of his replacement), the respectful thing to do would be to let him leave on his own timetable. This was an insult to Mattis and the President should have shown him the respect he has earned, even if it cost him a few more days of bad press.