Overnight Defense: Mattis stuns Washington with resignation | Letter highlights differences with Trump | Dems call exit 'scary' and 'bad news' | Trump defends Syria withdrawal | New reports say Trump weighing Afghan drawdown

THE TOPLINE: Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Trump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing Overnight Defense: Highlights from Defense pick's confirmation hearing | Esper spars with Warren over ethics | Sidesteps questions on Mattis vs. Trump | Trump says he won't sell F-35s to Turkey MORE announced Thursday he would resign in February, sending a note to President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE saying he deserved a secretary "whose views are better aligned with yours."

Mattis's impending departure topped an already explosive several days of news, in which the White House made the surprise announcement that the U.S. would be withdrawing its troops from Syria, as well as reports it was also considering a drawdown in Afghanistan as well.

Both moves have been met with opposition by Pentagon officials and members of the foreign policy establishment. 

 

What the resignation letter said: "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 from my position," Mattis wrote in the letter, which was devoid of any praise for the commander-in-chief. 

Trump and his defense secretary were known to have disagreements over a slew of key White House policies, particularly over the president's posture toward NATO and other allies over funding for military alliances. 

"One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies," Mattis wrote. 

Mattis also signaled his concerns with how Trump is treating two U.S. rivals, China and Russia. "I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours."

 

Read Mattis's resignation letter here.

 

Trump tweets first: His letter was released minutes after Trump said on Twitter that Mattis was "retiring."

"General Jim Mattis will be retiring, with distinction, at the end of February, after having served my administration as Secretary of Defense for the past two years," Trump tweeted in part.

 

Resignation ends months of speculation: Rumors of Mattis's potential departure have swirled for months as Trump bucked his defense secretary's advice on a number of issues. 

Over the last couple of years, Trump announced a ban on transgender troops on Twitter, canceled joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and deployed troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, among other moves that Mattis either opposed or received little forewarning of.

Reports about growing animosity between the two and Mattis' possible exit picked up steam in September following the publication of a book from journalist Bob Woodward. In the book, Mattis is quoted as saying Trump's understanding of the situation on the Korean peninsula is like that of a "fifth or sixth grade."

 

Lawmakers shocked: Following news of Mattis's departure, Twitter was soon flooded with responses from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers expressing their disappointment that the administration would soon lose the former four-star general. 

"Gen. Mattis has served our nation with great distinction. He will not be easy to replace," Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US Colombian official urges more help for Venezuelan migrants Lawmakers introduce bill to block U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei MORE (R-Fla.), wrote on Twitter.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet Why Trump's bigoted tropes won't work in 2020 The Memo: Toxic 2020 is unavoidable conclusion from Trump tweets MORE (R-S.C.), meanwhile, said Mattis "provided sound and ethical military advice to President Trump. He is a role model for the concept of Duty, Honor, Country."

Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseAcosta on shaky ground as GOP support wavers Some good advice for Democrats to ignore in 2020 Swing-state Democrats see trouble in proposed pay hike MORE (R-Neb.), called it "a sad day for America because Secretary Mattis was giving advice the President needs to hear. Mattis rightly believes that Russia and China are clear adversaries and that we are at war with jihadists across the globe who plot to kill Americans at home. Isolationism is a weak strategy that will harm Americans and America's allies. Radical Islamic jihadists are still at war with us, and no ISIS is not gone."

One GOP lawmakers blasted Trump after the news. "That's what happens when you ignore sound military advice," tweeted Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerHouse panel advances bill to protect elections from foreign interference GOP lawmakers say Trump wrong to criticize Biden in Japan Overnight Defense: Trump officials say efforts to deter Iran are working | Trump taps new Air Force secretary | House panel passes defense bill that limits border wall funds MORE (R-Ill.), an Air Force veteran.

  

Pelosi 'shaken' by exit: House Democratic Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Will Trump's racist tweets backfire? Al Green: 'We have the opportunity to punish' Trump with impeachment vote MORE (Calif.) told reporters Thursday evening that she was "shaken" by the news of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis's imminent resignation.

"I'm shaken by the news because of the patriot that Secretary Mattis is. I think everybody in the country should read his letter of resignation," she told reporters at a press conference scheduled to discuss a looming government shutdown.

"I am shaken by the resignation of General Mattis. For what it means to our country, for the message it sends to our troops, and for the indication of what his view is of the commander-in-chief."

 

Other Democrats called Mattis' departure, "scary" and bad news." More reaction from Democrats here.

 

MAJOR DRAWDOWN IN AFGHANISTAN COMING?: The Trump administration is considering a major drawdown in the number of U.S. military personnel stationed in Afghanistan, according to multiple reports Thursday.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration is considering a "significant drawdown" of U.S. troops in the country, saying it could start as soon as within several weeks.

Reuters, citing two officials, similarly reported that the administration was considering a "significant reduction" in military personnel in the country.

 

Coming on the heels of a Syria pullout…: The reports come one day after President Trump stoked anger and confusion among a number of lawmakers and officials with his surprise decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

Several lawmakers said that they were not given any advance notice about the president's announcement involving the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Trump has defended the decision in a series of tweets and comments over the past 24 hours, saying he wanted to bring troops home.

"I think it shows how serious the president is about wanting to come out of conflicts," a senior U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal about the Syria decision. "I think he wants to see viable options about how to bring conflicts to a close."

 

How many troops are in Afghanistan now: There are currently more than 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, primarily to advise and assist Afghan Security Forces in the fight against al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

Trump had originally campaigned on the promise to end "nation-building" missions such as efforts to train Afghan troops, and shortly after taking office in 2017 he made clear he had a desire to pull troops from the region. 

 After being persuaded by defense officials and then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster, however, Trump introduced a new strategy in August 2017 that included an indefinite time commitment and sending thousands more troops to the country.

Trump in that speech acknowledged his "original instinct was to pull out," but he said the calculation is different "when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office."

 

TRUMP DEFENDS SYRIA PULLOUT: Trump early Thursday defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, saying it was "no surprise" and asking if the nation wants to be in the war-torn nation "forever."

"Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I've been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer," he said in a tweet.

"Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there [sic] work. Time to come home & rebuild. #MAGA"

 

The background: Trump one day earlier announced the sudden and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. His decision came without consulting Congress and apparently caught the Pentagon off guard.

The move was sharply criticized Wednesday by a number of Senate Republicans. 

This is chaos," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), a staunch Trump ally, told reporters after the announcement. He said earlier in the day that withdrawing the troops would be an "Obama-like mistake."

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called it a "terrible decision" and outgoing Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerTrump announces, endorses ambassador to Japan's Tennessee Senate bid Meet the key Senate player in GOP fight over Saudi Arabia Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Tenn.) called it "in many ways even worse" than the withdrawal from Iraq by Trump's predecessor. 

 

Graham keeps on the criticism: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) plans to introduce a resolution calling on Trump to reverse his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, the senator said Thursday.

"Mr. President, you have a chance to change course. You've got a lot of bipartisan support to do so. Take advantage of it," Graham said at a news conference alongside Sens. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedTrump's pick to lead Pentagon glides through confirmation hearing Trump says US will not sell Turkey F-35s after Russian missile defense system purchase Pentagon chief nominee: 'We need to get back on the diplomatic channel' with Iran MORE (R.I.) and Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report Dem senators demand GOP judicial group discloses donors Senate passes .5B border bill, setting up fight with House MORE (N.J.), the top Democrats on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees respectively.

Trump's decision received bipartisan backlash, both because the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to hold territory in Syria and because of the haphazard way it was made. Congress was not notified ahead of time, and the Pentagon appeared to be caught off guard as well.

 

And Trump hits back: Trump hit back at  Graham over his opposition to plans to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, writing on Twitter that it is "hard to believe that Lindsey Graham would be against saving soldier lives & billions of $$$. Why are we fighting for our enemy, Syria, by staying & killing ISIS for them, Russia, Iran & other locals? Time to focus on our Country & bring our youth back home where they belong!" 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: Key US ally in Syria: ISIS 'has not been defeated'

-- The Hill: Hoyer: Trump decision on Syria 'irresponsible and dangerous'

-- The Hill: Joint Chiefs chairman was in the dark about Trump Syria pullout: report

-- The Hill: GOP lawmaker: Trump's video on Syria troop withdrawal 'really kind of tacky'

-- The Hill: France staying in Syria to fight ISIS, surprised by Trump decision

-- The Hill: North Korea: US must eliminate 'nuclear threat'

-- The Hill: Putin supports Trump's move to withdraw troops from Syria: 'I agree with him'

-- The Hill: Putin warns: Don't underestimate nuclear war threat

-- The Hill: Opinion: Withdrawal from Syria... faster, please

-- The Hill: Opinion: Russia, Iran and Turkey will step into vacuum US leaves in Syria

-- The Hill: Opinion: 'Crisis of national security' demands increased defense spending