President Donald Trump has requested that Secretary of Defense James Mattis step down two months earlier than expected, according to a tweet Trump sent Sunday morning.
Trump noted that he was “removing” Mattis, and that Mattis would be replaced — immediately — by Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan.
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 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!” the president tweeted.
The move was unexpected; in his resignation letter issued late last week, Mattis was clear that he would stay on until the end of February and, at the time, it appeared Trump agreed to the timeline. When Trump announced Mattis’ departure on Twitter, he made specific reference to February 28 as Mattis’s last day.
But in the interim between tweets, The New York Times reports, it seems Trump became aggravated at the accolades Mattis was receiving, and progressively angrier at swipes Mattis took at Trump’s foreign policy in his two-page resignation letter.
“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,” the Times reported.
Worse still, the news media reserved its praise for Mattis, whom they described as having “stood up” to Trump over Trump’s decision to immediately withdraw all American troops from Syria, something Mattis vehemently opposed — at least on the heavily truncated timeline Trump wants.
Although aides told the NYT that Trump did, indeed, read Mattis’ letter in full, the weight of what Mattis was saying did not hit him until late Friday. By Saturday, the president was already taking jabs at Mattis on Twitter: “when President Obama ingloriously fired Jim Mattis, I gave him a second chance. Some thought I shouldn’t, I thought I should.”
Sunday, the president made a significant decision: Mattis would not remain in office through a transition period.
The White House told Yahoo News that Mattis was informed about the president’s decision before the tweet and contended that Mattis would be removed January 1 to avoid a drawn out transition process.
“A White House official said Trump decided Mattis should leave the administration earlier than planned to avoid a drawn-out transition when someone on hand whom they consider a qualified deputy capable of running the Pentagon in an acting capacity,” Yahoo reported. “The official, who asked not to be identified publicly discussing personnel matters, said it made sense to have a quicker transition and not create problems.”
The Pentagon told CNN that Mattis will abide by the decision: “the secretary of defense serves at the pleasure of the president. The department remains focused on national security.”
Shanahan, who will replace Mattis, at least temporarily, is a former Boeing executive, according to the Defense Department’s website. He joined the Defense Department in 2017, though his appointment was marked by clashes between the administration and Republicans in the Senate, including Senator John McCain, who suggested that Shanahan was a “qualified nominee,” but that the administration had yet to give Secretary Mattis “the senior leadership he needs to do his job.”
Since joining the Defense Department, Shanahan has focused largely on the Space Force program rather than military policy.