Trump claims he 'essentially fired' Mattis, knocks US military strategy

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Post-Mueller, Trump has a good story to tell for 2020 MORE on Wednesday claimed that he "essentially" fired former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisNew 2020 candidate Moulton on hypothetical Mars invasion: 'I would not build a wall' Trump learns to love acting officials Shanahan says he's 'never favored' Boeing as acting Defense chief MORE, and criticized U.S. military leadership during his first Cabinet meeting of 2019.

Asked about the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Trump expressed disapproval with the U.S. performance there despite the hundreds of billions of dollars in additional funding appropriated for defense over the past two years.

"Gen. Mattis was so thrilled," Trump said of the funding. "But what's he done for me? How's he done in Afghanistan? Not too good. Not too good. I'm not too happy with what he's done in Afghanistan, and I shouldn't be happy."

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"I wish him well. I hope he does well," Trump added. "But as you know, President Obama fired him, and essentially so did I."

Mattis resigned last month after Trump announced plans to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, which was met with concern from bipartisan lawmakers. Mattis's resignation letter was implicitly critical of the president, writing that his views do not align with Trump's on the need to respect allies and confront adversaries.

While Mattis wrote that his resignation was effective at the end of February, Trump forced him out of his Cabinet position early. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanKim to meet with Putin as tensions with US rise GOP Armed Services chair 'no longer concerned' about training for border troops The Mueller report is a deterrent to government service MORE took over Tuesday and attended Wednesday's Cabinet meeting.

Obama removed Mattis in 2013 as the head of Central Command. He joined the Trump administration in 2017.

Trump's comments on Mattis came during a lengthy and wide-ranging Cabinet meeting where he defended his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and criticized U.S. military leadership in the Middle East and Afghanistan. 

The president recounted a conversation with generals roughly a month ago where they discussed a territory that both the Taliban and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria contested.

"I said, 'Why don’t you let them fight? Why are we getting in the middle of it?' " Trump said. "They’re both our enemies. Let them fight ... I think I would’ve been a good general, but who knows."

The president went on to lambaste the past funding levels of the military and called it "insane" that internal reports critical of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan are made public.

"Our military’s getting really strong," Trump said. "I could tell you stories when I first got here about our military that I don’t even want to talk about."

Trump's criticism of military management came a day after he tore into retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, calling him a "Hillary lover" with a "big, dumb mouth." McChrystal on Sunday criticized Trump as dishonest and "immoral."

The president did offer praise for Shanahan, who sat next to Trump throughout the Cabinet meeting.

"You have done really, in particular, you have done a fantastic job," Trump said of Shanahan after the acting Defense chief gave an update on efforts to secure the border.

Wednesday's Cabinet meeting preceded a gathering of congressional leaders at the White House to discuss border security amid a partial government shutdown that has lasted 12 days and counting.

Trump has demanded $5 billion for his proposed wall along the southern border, while Democrats have refused to budge from their offer of $1.3 billion in funding for border security measures.