Donald Trump may not know it yet, but his presidency is collapsing.
His tweets Thursday announcing the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis by the end of February were polite and respectful. And it would be easy to attribute this resignation to a difference in policy: Trump ignored Mattis and went forward with a hasty and ill-considered withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. It looks like Trump is about to do the same thing in Afghanistan.
But that does not capture what has just happened. Just read the retired general’s resignation letter. In it, Mattis shows that he is thinking about something much bigger than Syria policy.
Here are some noteworthy quotes: “Our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships.” And: “We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.” And this: “We must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours.”
Then Mattis goes in for the kill shot. “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.”
The strong implication here is that Mattis no longer believes the president thinks allies should be respected. He is resigning because he does not believe Trump agrees with him that America should work to preserve a liberal international order. He is resigning because Trump is not as resolute and unambiguous with America’s adversaries as Mattis believes he should be.
In other words: This is not about policy. It’s about values — and, according to his letter, Mattis no longer believes the president shares his values.
That said, there are practical implications. On Wednesday, most Republican senators were furious in a policy lunch with Vice President Mike Pence over the substance and process of the Syria decision. Expect that rebellion among Republican senators to get hotter in the coming days as America’s Kurdish allies in Syria brace for a pending onslaught from the Turks.
Trump could have used Mattis to bring the Senate around to his thinking on Syria. He doesn’t have that option anymore.
The president’s supporters may still feel unfazed, even confident. Trump has burned through two chiefs of staff, two national security advisers, a secretary of state and an attorney general in less than two years. He has survived.
This resignation, though, is different. As I wrote two months ago, Mattis provided Trump with a powerful shield. Whatever you thought of his views, Mattis embodied military virtue and the spirit of public service. As long as he served the president, reluctant Republicans could point to the Pentagon and say: If Mattis supports Trump, then so do I.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.