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Why Mattis Left The Trump Administration


Jim Mattis is a man of many titles, many accomplishments and experiences within the military and as a public servant. His resignation last year as secretary of defense was as much a statement about the divide between him and President Trump as it was a stand against the hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. His resignation letter made headlines, but since then, Mattis has kept mostly silent publicly.

We are now hearing from him in his own words through his new book and also through a series of in-depth interviews with the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg, who is in our studios this morning. Jeff, thanks for coming in.


GREENE: So what was your impression from spending so much time in conversations with the former defense secretary, and what, if anything, did you learn about his relationship with President Trump?

GOLDBERG: Well, we know that his relationship was fraught. He did resign on principle over the Syria issue. He believes very strongly that you don't criticize - as a general officer, as a secretary of defense - you don't criticize a sitting president. But it becomes abundantly clear, even reading his book, that he has serious critiques of the president not only on the policy level but on the behavioral level as well.

GREENE: So what was your approach to this? I mean, it sounds like, in reading your piece, like, you you went in as a journalist who knew what the most important questions were to ask but sort of knew that you weren't going to get easy answers.

GOLDBERG: Oh, I knew for sure that he wasn't going to address Trump directly, but I had to - my obligation is to keep banging on that, and that's that's I did. I asked him over and over again. And we talked about obligation. He believes he has an obligation to this code of silence. I was making the argument that you have an obligation to your fellow citizens. He knows better than almost anyone alive Trump's capabilities, Trump's predispositions, his his talents. And I made the argument to him very directly - sometime before November 3, 2020, you ought to tell the American people what actually happened inside.

GREENE: Why do you believe that? Why do you feel so strongly?

GOLDBERG: I think he has an obligation. I mean, we need to know. The basic question all voters need to know about anybody running for president or who is president is, are they fit to command? The commander in chief role, this is the person who sits atop are our nuclear arsenal. They are an absolute nuclear monarch. It's a democracy with a person who is actually totally in charge of our nuclear weapons. I would like to know as much as possible about the sitting president or anybody running for president.

Jim Mattis has unique insight, and we know he's on record with his letter, with other things, things he said to me that he does not believe Donald Trump is a good president. I think that's fairly clear from everything that he's written. His book is one long indirect critique of the president. It's a book about leadership. He holds up all these positive models of leadership. Everything he says about positive models of leadership, these are not the way that Donald Trump behaves. It's fairly clear what he's doing here, but he's doing it indirectly.

GREENE: How did he grapple with your argument that there's a different sense of duty here, that he has such an understanding of the person who is president now and running again that he has an obligation to talk about in detail?

GOLDBERG: We eventually came to some kind of compromise in our conversations. He told me - and I have this quote in the in the piece - he said that his obligation for silence is not eternal. It doesn't last forever. He did not put a time stamp on it. But I do believe - my suspicion is that he will come out at some point between now and November 2020 and give us more direct insight into his understanding of Donald Trump and his capabilities and his fitness for office.

GREENE: Wouldn't that be a violation of the duty that he said he's so committed to if he does come out and start talking at some point?

GOLDBERG: I think he has in his mind, and I don't know what they are. I think he has red lines in his mind. I think he does have - and, you know, one could argue that that Trump crossed them again and again - he quit over one of those red lines obviously. But I think he's a little bit burdened by this dilemma. Everything in his character tells him - I don't talk, but this is an unusual circumstance.

GREENE: Jeffrey Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Atlantic. He has a piece out about Mattis today. Jeff, thanks so much.

GOLDBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.