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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis Tells Department To Defend The Constitution In Farewell


It's the last day for Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense. Just before midnight Eastern, he'll hand over the post to Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Mattis announced his resignation 11 days ago, just after President Trump said he was pulling all U.S. forces out of Syria.

Today, the retired four-star Marine general sent a farewell letter to the nearly 3 million troops and civilians at the Defense Department. Joining me to talk about this is NPR's national security correspondent, David Welna. Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: A lot was said about Mattis' resignation letter. What can you tell us about the farewell letter?

WELNA: Well, like that letter, there's a lot that can be read between the lines in this one. Mattis a scholar of military history, and he starts the letter quoting a one-sentence telegram that Abraham Lincoln sent in the final weeks of the Civil War to General Ulysses S. Grant, who was the commander of the Union army. And in that, Lincoln wrote, (reading) let nothing which is transpiring change, hinder or delay your military movements or plans. In other words, keep on keeping on.

And this comes just days after the president publicly disrespected the judgment of the troops' generals during a visit to Iraq. Mattis wrote that he was confident the DOD's troops and civilians will remain, as he put it, undistracted from their sworn mission of supporting and defending the Constitution. And he pointedly added that the Defense Department has proven it's at its best when, in his words, the times are most difficult.

CORNISH: How would you sum up his time in the Trump administration?

WELNA: Unusual right from the start. There had to be an act of Congress to enable him to serve as - as defense secretary since he had only recently retired from the military. And Mattis initially had a lot of rapport with Trump. Trump seemed to back him publicly. But over the past year, that has deteriorated. And Mattis has repeatedly been blindsided by Trump, whether it's about barring transgender troops from serving, wanting a big military parade, wanting a new space force - that kind of thing.

CORNISH: Right. How did Mattis deal with that?

WELNA: Well, he was able to slow walk or even pull the plug on some of those proposals, but he wasn't able to stop Trump from suspending military exercises with South Korea or from naming a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs, whom Mattis had not recommended, or from sending active-duty troops to the border and then finally, as a kind of a last straw for him, pulling out all the U.S. troops from Syria.

Nobody had expected Mattis to quit, but it just seems like it became impossible to continue as defense secretary with a commander in chief whose worldview is so much at odds with his own.

CORNISH: That brings us to now. What was his last day like on the job?

WELNA: Well, it's a very low-key day. There are not the military bands and speeches that other departing defense secretaries have gotten. Mattis had offered to remain on the job until the end of February. But Trump, a few days after his resignation letter, told him that his last day would be today, apparently realizing from news reports how hard-hitting Mattis' letter had actually been. So no parades, no speeches - Mattis is instead expected to simply make a phone call to his designated successor a minute before midnight and hand off the job.

CORNISH: Tell us more about his successor It's Patrick Shanahan. He's the deputy defense secretary. Who is he?

WELNA: Well, you know, he's never served in the military. This has been his first job in the government. He spent most of his career as a senior executive at Boeing, a major defense contractor. Shanahan oversaw the first audit ever of the Pentagon this year. But it's not clear how much his own views align with those of the president. He'll be the acting secretary, and a more permanent replacement will have to be confirmed by the Senate.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Welna. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.