MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
President Trump's decision to remove all U.S. troops from Syria is one more sign that he is all but brushing aside Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Mattis' advice was to keep American forces in the country to defeat ISIS and stabilize northeast Syria. That advice was rejected by Trump. Now, it was not always this way. Trump nominated Mattis to great fanfare during a rally two years ago.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are going to appoint Mad Dog Mattis as our secretary of defense.
KELLY: NPR's Tom Bowman is here to talk about the slow and steady fall, as I gather you see it...
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: That's right.
KELLY: ...Of Secretary Mattis. Hey, Tom.
BOWMAN: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So, I mean, back to that moment we just heard when President Trump chose Mad Dog Mattis, as he called him then. It was seen as a positive. People thought Trump had made a great personnel decision. Mattis was four-star Marine Corps general. He was widely respected. He was grown up.
BOWMAN: Widely respected on the Hill, everybody seemed to like Mattis. And he did have a great amount of influence for a time. For example, the president talked about bringing back torture, and Mattis famously said, you're better off with a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers to try to get someone to talk...
KELLY: I remember that.
BOWMAN: ...Than go to torture. Also, he convinced President Trump to add more troops to Afghanistan. That was significant. Trump said, my instinct is to pull out. So Mattis ran interference on that and was successful.
KELLY: But he also ran into interference pretty early on in his tenure, starting back with the president's thinking about the Iran nuclear deal.
BOWMAN: Exactly. I think what you saw was a tug of war within the White House and the administration between more conventional conservatives who are more internationalist and the American Firsters (ph), more nationalist, who basically wanted to get out of the Middle East in particular. So you're right. You had the Iran nuclear deal. The president scrapped that. Mattis wanted to keep it.
You also had personnel issues. Tossing transgender and immigrant recruits from the military as the president wanted to do - Mattis was against that. The creation of the Space Force Mattis was against, thought it was too expensive and unnecessary. Also, canceling military exercises with South Korea - that was something Mattis thought was a bad idea. And finally, he was against sending U.S. active duty troops to the border with Mexico.
And I think a real slap to Mattis was the recent selection of Army General Mark Milley to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Mattis had another candidate, Air Force General Dave Goldfein. The White House didn't even inform Mattis of the president's choice.
KELLY: To the news this week about Syria, how do we know that Mattis argued against pulling U.S. troops out?
BOWMAN: Of Syria?
KELLY: Mmm hmm.
BOWMAN: Oh, he said it repeatedly to reporters. He said first of all, American troops have to stay there to advise the Syrian, Kurdish and Arab rebels for the final defeat of ISIS. I was over there in October, and the military officers there told me you're looking well into next year before the caliphate is defeated. Mattis went beyond that. He said even after ISIS has gone, the U.S. troops will have to stay there to stabilize this area of northeast Syria.
KELLY: And he's on record talking about this - what? - just recently in Canada.
BOWMAN: He was on record talking about that, yeah, just two weeks ago. Let's listen.
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JIM MATTIS: There's more work to be done. That hardened core means tough fighting there, plus the potential for it to try to become more influential worldwide, influential meaning inspiring attacks by surrogates, by those who've pledged allegiance to them.
KELLY: So we're at quite a list of areas where Trump and Mattis do not seem to see eye to eye. Do we know whether Mattis is going to stick it out and stay around till the end of the president's term?
BOWMAN: That is probably the biggest question in the Pentagon now. Will he stay, or will he leave? People who know him say Mattis the Marine general - always continue the mission, complete the mission - would never resign unless he was asked to do something unlawful, an unlawful order from the president. That's unlikely. So people think Mattis will stay. He'll never resign. He'll have to be fired by the president before he leaves.
KELLY: Thank you, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
KELLY: NPR's Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.