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Mattis breaks silence: ‘I had no choice but to leave’; George Washington is my model

Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Jan. 23, 2017. (Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley/Department of Defense)
August 29, 2019

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis broke his silence on his resignation from the Trump Administration in new reports this week, citing differences in leadership.

During an interview with The Atlantic published this week, Mattis 68, referred to his December 2018 resignation and said, “I had no choice but to leave.”

“That’s why the [resignation] letter is in the book. I want people to understand why I couldn’t stay. I’ve been informed by four decades of experience, and I just couldn’t connect the dots anymore,” he explained.

In his resignation letter to President Trump last year, Mattis wrote, “because you have a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours … I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”

The letter came one day after Trump announced the full withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria and months of rumors of tensions between Trump and Mattis.

Mattis said this week that his leadership style is modeled on George Washington.

“My model—one of my models—is George Washington. Washington’s idea of leadership was that first you listen, then you learn, then you help, and only then do you lead. It is a somewhat boring progression, but it’s useful. What you try to do in that learning phase is find common ground,” he told The Atlantic.

“So on one end of the spectrum is George Washington, and at the other end is Donald Trump?” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg asked.

Mattis smiled and changed the subject.

In his book excerpt-turned-essay published exclusively in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Mattis also recounted his experience as Defense Secretary and thoughts that preceded his resignation.

“Using every skill I had learned during my decades as a Marine, I did as well as I could for as long as I could. When my concrete solutions and strategic advice, especially keeping faith with our allies, no longer resonated, it was time to resign, despite the limitless joy I felt serving alongside our troops in defense of our Constitution,” Mattis wrote.

Mattis expressed surprise that he was chosen for consideration of such a position in the first place.

“During the interview, Mr. Trump had asked me if I could do the job. I said I could. I’d never aspired to be secretary of defense and took the opportunity to suggest several other candidates I thought highly capable,” Mattis recounted his first meeting with President Trump.

However, crediting his upbringing, four decades of military experience, and his view of service to the country as “both honor and duty,” Mattis accepted.

“When the president asks you to do something, you don’t play Hamlet on the wall, wringing your hands. To quote a great American company’s slogan, you ‘just do it,’” Mattis wrote. “So long as you are prepared, you say yes.”

Mattis was candid about his reluctance to be in Washington D.C., referring to “the turmoil and politics that animate our capital,” but explained he was confident he could garner support from both sides of the political aisle at a time when the public’s support of the Pentagon was fractured.

Mattis became the most approved member of the Trump Administration and is hailed as one of the greatest military minds of our time.