Mattis exit leaves Trump, US further isolated 

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisGOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering Overnight Defense: Trump faces blowback over report he discussed leaving NATO | Pentagon extends mission on border | Senate advances measure bucking Trump on Russia sanctions Trump suggested withdrawing US from NATO: report MORE's acrimonious divorce from the Trump administration leaves behind a president increasingly isolated from his own party, the Pentagon and traditional U.S. allies.

While Mattis’s exit wasn't a complete shock after months of speculation about his possible resignation, the manner in which he left — which put his disagreements with Trump in the public spotlight — appeared to unnerve lawmakers in both parties.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeOvernight Defense: Senators say questions remain after Syria briefing | Trump inches closer to declaring emergency to build wall | Air Force accepts Boeing tankers despite flaws Senators say questions remain on Trump strategy in Syria after briefing Emergency declaration option for wall tests GOP MORE (R-Okla.), a staunch Trump supporter, said he is “very concerned” about the direction of U.S. foreign policy following Mattis’s resignation.


“There’s no one who has known him longer and better, and had more affection for Mattis, than I do,” Inhofe said.

Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSunday shows preview: Washington heads into multi-day shutdown Overnight Energy: Senators introduce bipartisan carbon tax bill | House climate panel unlikely to have subpoena power | Trump officials share plan to prevent lead poisoning Flake to co-introduce bipartisan climate bill MORE (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria over the objections of Mattis and other advisers “signals a sharp shift away from what has been a 70-year consensus in Congress and in our national security leadership that our alliances matter.”

“You consult with our intelligence community, national security community and our allies before making abrupt decisions that will impact the whole country,” he said.

Mattis’s exit had the sense of a historic event and, coming amid a government shutdown, a plummeting stock market and dramatic developments in special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE's investigation, a symbol of a presidency seemingly unraveling.

“Really feels like it's coming unglued this time,” one former White House official who worked closely with Mattis’s team said after the Defense secretary’s exit.

The retired Marine Corps general was a widely respected figure and had been seen as a stabilizing influence on the Trump administration, which has often been consumed by chaos caused by the president’s impulsive decisionmaking.

Lawmakers and national security professionals in the administration viewed Mattis as the Trump team’s most stalwart defender of the post-World War II order, characterized by American involvement abroad and commitment to alliances, and as one of the few top officials with enough renown to stand up to the president.

“Secretary Mattis was like a comfort blanket for those concerned about President TrumpDonald John TrumpVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' Brown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration Pence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ MORE’s views on national security and foreign policy,” said Andy Keiser, a former Trump transition official who once served as a senior adviser to the House Intelligence Committee. “Yesterday, the blanket was suddenly torn off and the chill was palpable.”

Entering his third year in office, Trump appears increasingly willing to break free of the foreign policy guardrails upheld by Mattis and others and pursue his own course.

Trump promised during his 2016 campaign that he would pull U.S. troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, driven by his isolationist instincts dating back to before he entered politics.

Though his advisers persuaded him for nearly two years to keep an expanded military presence there, arguing that leaving would be a boon for adversaries like Russia, Iran and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Trump always appeared to be looking for a way out.

The same goes for the U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula, which the Pentagon views as critical to deterring a North Korea that is pursuing nuclear weapons.

In his book “Fear: Trump in the White House,” journalist Bob Woodward depicted an agitated Mattis who tried to convince Trump during a January national security meeting that the country keeps a military presence in South Korea “in order to prevent World War III.”


After Trump left the meeting, Mattis reportedly grew extraordinarily frustrated and told associates that the president had displayed the mental capacity of “a fifth- or sixth-grader.”

“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held,” Mattis wrote in his resignation letter. “Because you have the right to have a secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down.”

Trump likewise had vented frustration with Mattis, whom he criticized in an October “60 Minutes” interview as “sort of a Democrat” and somebody who “may leave.”

In a Friday morning tweet, Trump responded indirectly to Mattis.

“There has never been a president who has been tougher (but fair) on China or Russia - Never, just look at the facts. The Fake News tries so hard to paint the opposite picture.”

With Mattis gone, however, Republicans and Democrats have expressed concern that Trump could withdraw troops from Korea, or even pull out of NATO, the Cold War-era mutual defense alliance.

Trump has threatened to withdraw from NATO if other nations did not boost their defense spending.

“I said, ‘Yes, I will leave you.’ You could see those checkbooks coming out for billions of dollars,” he said at a West Virginia campaign rally.

Unlike the president, Mattis was viewed by European allies as someone who could keep the U.S. committed to the alliance.

“Mattis checked President Trump's worst instincts & was a strong supporter of NATO & multilateralism. His departure is bad news & makes it look like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s plan is being delivered on,” tweeted former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, a member of European Parliament.

Verhofstadt said Mattis’s exit shows the need for Europe “to speed up” plans to bolster its own defenses.

Back home, there were signs that Trump’s break with Mattis risked creating a political rift with his Republican supporters at a time the president can ill-afford one.

Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerOn The Money: Trump says he won't declare emergency 'so fast' | Shutdown poised to become longest in history | Congress approves back pay for workers | More federal unions sue over shutdown Overnight Energy: House votes to reopen Interior, EPA | Dems question EPA over Wheeler confirmation prep | Virginia Dem backs Green New Deal House votes to reopen Interior, EPA as shutdown fight wages on MORE (R-Ill.), an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said Trump’s recent foreign policy moves are out of step with most Republicans in Washington.

When CNN anchor Jake Tapper pointed out during a Wednesday interview that Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulMedia fails spectacularly at smearing Rand Paul for surgery in Canada Rand Paul to have hernia surgery in Canada Ron Paul: Remove incentives for illegal immigrants instead of building border wall MORE (R-Ky.) had applauded the president’s decision, Kinzinger fired back that Paul's “foreign policy is not Republican.”

“I hope that the president wasn't listening to Rand Paul ... versus all of his people around him that know this stuff, because I fear that this is going to be a massive disaster,” he said.

Trump even encountered criticism from his favorite cable news show “Fox & Friends,” where host Brian Kilmeade blasted him on Friday’s program.

Kilmeade, typically a vocal Trump supporter, told White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday that the president had “re-founded ISIS” and was giving Russia “a big win” with his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

The outpouring of criticism blunted Trump's recent efforts to appeal to his Republican supporters, whom he will need by his side as he confronts divided government and an accelerating Russia investigation next year.

Others close to the administration say, however, the presence of Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoGOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering Iran conducts failed satellite launch, despite US warning White House announces reduced delegation to travel to Davos amid shutdown MORE and national security adviser John Bolton, both of whom are embraced by the GOP national security establishment, should reassure Republicans.

“The president still enjoys a highly capable team that understands the world and the threats and opportunities we face. If past is prologue, the president is likely to nominate a new Defense secretary who will at least temporarily settle the critics’ nerves,” said Keiser.

Trump on Saturday defended the Syria decision as a promise kept.

“I won an election, said to be one of the greatest of all time, based on getting out of endless & costly foreign wars & also based on Strong Borders which will keep our Country safe. We fight for the borders of other countries, but we won’t fight for the borders of our own!” he tweeted.