U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis at the Pentagon in 2018.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis at the Pentagon in 2018. Sgt. Amber I. Smith/Army

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“I had no choice but to leave,” General James Mattis says of his decision to resign as President Trump’s secretary of defense.

On December 19 of last year, Admiral Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met James Mattis for lunch at the Pentagon. Mattis was a day away from resigning as Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, but he tends to keep his own counsel, and he did not suggest to Mullen, his friend and former commander, that he was thinking of leaving.

But Mullen did think Mattis appeared unusually afflicted that day. Mattis often seemed burdened in his role. His aides and friends say he found the president to be of limited cognitive ability, and of generally dubious character. Now Mattis was becoming more and more isolated in the administration, especially since the defenestration of his closest Cabinet ally, the former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, several months earlier. Mattis and Tillerson had together smothered some of Trump’s more extreme and imprudent ideas. But now Mattis was operating without cover. Trump was turning on him publicly; two months earlier, he had speculated that Mattis might be a Democrat and said, in reference to NATO, “I think I know more about it than he does.” (Mattis, as a Marine general, once served as the supreme allied commander in charge of NATO transformation.)

Mullen told me recently that service in this administration comes with a unique set of hazards, and that Mattis was not unaware of these hazards. “I think back to his ‘Hold the line’ talk, the one that was captured on video,” Mullen said, referring to an impromptu 2017 encounter between Mattis and U.S. troops stationed in Jordan that became a YouTube sensation. In the video, Mattis tells the soldiers, “Our country right now, it’s got problems we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it.” Mullen said: “He obviously found himself in a challenging environment.”

Read more from James Mattis on his time in the Trump administration at The Atlantic.