Thursday, December 20, will go down in history as the day Americans had to face a devastating truth about the dangerous charlatan in the White House: Trump cares more about the policy wisdom of right-wing grifters like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter than of a lifelong military leader and public servant like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who announced his resignation Thursday evening.
Trump opened the day wounded by complaints from Limbaugh, Coulter, and some Fox News anchors that he was caving on his delusional promise of a border wall if he signed a bill to keep the government open without demanding funding for it, as he planned to do. Trump thought he could fool his followers by claiming the wall is being built (it’s not); when they didn’t fall for his lie, he flip-flopped and said the bill must give him his $5 billion for the wall, or he’d shut down the government. Apparently, Trump told Limbaugh about his change of heart in a personal phone call. It’s good to know who’s in charge here.
Just hours later, his beleaguered defense secretary came to him and asked him to rethink his plan to precipitously withdraw American troops from the conflict in Syria. When Trump refused, Mattis submitted a resignation letter that Trump lied and called an announcement of retirement but that was, in fact, the most thoroughgoing and scathing critique of Trump’s foreign policy we’ve seen by anyone who’s not a Democrat.
Mattis’s letter sizzled with alarm that Trump has disrespected our allies and propped up totalitarians in Russia and China. “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects,” he wrote, “I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
And the world gasped.
I admit: So did I. But shock and a little fear were quickly replaced by relief that we are done with one of the comforting canards of the Trump era: that there were “adults in the room” who could protect us from the incompetent president’s worst instincts. For one thing, Mattis has been rolled on multiple occasions, blindsided by Trump’s decisions to reject transgender troops, to meet alone with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, to “summit” with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un without preconditions or much planning, to send military units to the Mexican border to back up the inhumane and possibly illegal treatment of lawful asylum seekers, and, finally, to withdraw quickly from Syria (oh, and later in the evening came the word: Afghanistan, too!).
Like many on the left, I think we’ve stayed in both countries too long. I’m also aware that Mattis, while broadly respected, clashed several times with President Obama on policy in Iran and Syria, with Mattis holding more hawkish views. Still, I don’t know how anyone could possibly think Trump should pull the United States out of Syria without consulting his national-security team or our allies—as apparently happened here. If a monkey flings its poop and it hits a crazed gunman in the face and stops a murder, we would not make that monkey the police chief. President Trump does not deserve praise for a policy decision driven by… God knows what, but certainly not careful consultation with others and sober deliberation.
Still, the good news about Mattis’s departure is that the so-called “adults” in the Trump administration—former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly, former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster—are now all gone. That formulation always disturbed me, since it made American citizens “children” who must be protected by three military leaders (Mattis’s appointment violated the norm that the defense secretary be a civilian) and a rapacious Exxon CEO. That’s not the way democracy is supposed to work.
Historic turnout in the midterm elections, along with historic Democratic victories in the House of Representatives, was a bracing corrective to this state of affairs. I’ve heard it said repeatedly in the last day that because Mattis was popular with congressional Republicans, his departure might shock them out of their collusion with a corrupt president and into their proper oversight role. There have been some expressions of concern about Mattis’s leaving from Republicans—but the most forceful have been off the record. The notion that Republicans will do the right thing and rein Trump in—or even use their power to get him out of the White House—may be as delusional as believing the “adults” can save us. We can only save ourselves. Enjoy the holiday—and then let’s get back to work on that.