President Trump began Thursday under siege, listening to howls of indignation from conservatives over his border wall and thrusting the government toward a shutdown. He ended it by announcing the exit of the man U.S. allies see as the last guardrail against the president’s erratic behavior: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, whose resignation letter was a scathing rebuke of Trump’s worldview.
At perhaps the most fragile moment of his presidency — and vulnerable to convulsions on the political right — Trump single-handedly propelled the U.S. government into crisis and sent markets tumbling with his gambits this week to salvage signature campaign promises.
The president’s decisions and conduct have led to a fracturing of Trump’s coalition. Hawks condemned his sudden decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Conservatives called him a “gutless president” and questioned whether he would ever build a wall. Political friends began privately questioning whether Trump needed to be reined in.
After campaigning on shrinking America’s footprint in overseas wars, Trump abruptly declared Wednesday that he was withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria, a move Mattis and other advisers counseled against. And officials said Thursday that Trump is preparing to send thousands of troops home from Afghanistan, as well.
The president also issued an ultimatum to Congress to fund construction of his promised U.S.-Mexico border wall, a move poised to result in a government shutdown just before Christmas. Trump and his aides had signaled tacit support for a short-term spending compromise that would avert the shutdown, but the president abruptly changed course after absorbing a deluge of criticism from some of his most high-profile loyalists.
Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary, CIA director and White House chief of staff for Democratic presidents, said, “We’re in a constant state of chaos right now in this country.” He added, “While it may satisfy [Trump’s] need for attention, it’s raising hell with the country.”
Panetta said the resignation of Mattis is a singular moment and that his letter, which underscores how Mattis sees Trump’s approach as misguided, “puts the security of the nation right now at some degree of risk.”
Trump has been isolated in bunker mode in recent weeks as political and personal crises mount, according to interviews with 27 current and former White House officials, Republican lawmakers, and outside advisers to the president, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid assessments.
“There’s going to be an intervention,” one former senior administration official said speculatively. “Jim Mattis just sent a shot across the bow. He’s the most credible member of the administration by five grades of magnitude. He’s the steady, safe set of hands. And this letter is brutal. He quit because of the madness.”
In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote, “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues . . . 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.”
Although Trump’s relationship with Mattis has been rocky for months, the president spent the first part of Thursday focused on another fraying relationship: with his conservative base.
On Thursday, as criticism over his capitulation on the wall grew louder by the hour, Trump complained to friends and aides that he felt politically shackled. He had no plan but was spoiling for a fight. By midday, the president picked one.
“I’ve made my position very clear: Any measure that funds the government must include border security. Has to,” Trump said Thursday. He added that he had “no choice” but to act.
Trump’s advisers acknowledged that the funding may not be secured in the end but boasted that the spectacle would be remembered favorably by his base voters as proof of his mettle. A wall funding