The operating thesis regarding democracy in the age of Trump is that America continues to operate because sane people still work in the government. General James Mattis, the former secretary of defense, was a prime example of this civic commitment: an institutionalist discipline amid executive malfeasance. Whether the Muslim travel ban, relations with North Korea, alliances with NATO countries, an announced ban on transgender troops, or simply putting a stop to costly public displays of presidential self-aggrandizement, the general (in addition to his duties as the head of the U.S. Armed Forces) was a reliable mediator.
His role as such came to an end on December 20, 2018, when President Donald Trump announced that the secretary had submitted his resignation. The day before, Trump had abruptly announced the withdrawal of American forces in Syria, abandoning Kurdish allies and effectively giving the strongmen Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin a particularly and inexplicably large Christmas gift. According to reports, Mattis went to the Oval Office on Thursday to urge Trump to reconsider his decision, prepared for ill-informed obstinance (this was Trump, after all): In Mattis’s pocket was a resignation letter informing the president of his planned departure on February 28, 2019.
That might have been the end of it. After all, the Departure Lounge of this administration has come to be a crowded and cacophonous place, animated by Apprentice-style employee shuttlecocking (Comey, Bannon, Spicer, Lewandowski, Sessions … Scaramucci), tail-between-legs exoduses (Price, Zinke, Porter, Pruitt), and the periodic flight of self-preservationists (Cohn, Hicks, Haley, McGahn, Ayers). Recently and worryingly, the departures area has also seen a steady stream of exiting agents of stability—notably, former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Mattis’s departure might have been an unfortunate inevitability in this vein (initially, the president tweet-thanked Mattis for his service), but the ensuing eruption turned the secretary’s departure into something specifically degrading, a noxious turning point in what has already been a spectacle of administrative humiliation.
Amid rising consternation over Mattis’s departure—Trump resents nothing as much as public doubt—the president two days after the announcement tweeted that he had been the one to offer the general “a second chance” after Mattis had been “ingloriously fired” by President Barack Obama. Of this decision, Trump mused beneficently, “Some thought I shouldn’t, I thought I should.”
The presidential psychology was familiar but still ugly: Shame the ones who bring you shame, no matter what they’ve done for you (or the country). And it was not over yet.
A day later, on Sunday, the president announced that the defense secretary would be leaving on January 1 of the new year, rather than Mattis’s announced (and preferred) date two months later. Kicking a four-star general off his job was apparently the 45th president’s way of saying “Thank you for your service.”
By start of the new year, the president was bristling to the cameras during a Cabinet meeting and saying of the now-departed Mattis, “What’s he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good ... I’m not happy with what he’s done in Afghanistan, and I shouldn’t be happy. As you know, President Obama fired him, and essentially so did I.”
The spite was stunning; the lies were obvious. But it was the outlandishness of the question—“What’s he done for me?”—that truly shocked. Mattis risked his life in three wars and spent his career in the military. His highest loyalties have been to his country. The decorated general known as the Warrior Monk was demeaned on live television by a president who never served a day in his life.
This president will attempt to destroy the reputation of literally anyone who crosses his path—including the many men and women who have sought to serve him, and especially the country, with honor. Good government rests on civil servants. And no president has yet disgraced those servants more explicitly than Donald Trump.