'Hold fast': Defense Secretary Jim Mattis departs with a new message, but no fanfare

The Washington Post

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will leave his office Monday night with none of the pageantry typically associated with the position, and a short message to U.S. troops: "Hold fast."

Mattis, who resigned Dec. 20, planned to stay as Pentagon chief through Feb. 28 to ensure a smooth transition. He was forced out earlier by President Donald Trump on Dec. 23, as the president complained about the media coverage he was receiving over the resignation. The defense secretary has said little since then, but he asked Defense Department personnel on Monday to remain "undistracted" from their mission to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

"On February 1, 1865, President Lincoln sent to General Ulysses S. Grant a one sentence telegram. It read: 'Let nothing which is transpiring, change, hinder, or delay your military movements, or plans.'" Mattis wrote in a memo released by the Pentagon.

"Our Department's leadership, civilian and military, remains in the best possible hands. I am confident that each of you remains undistracted from our sworn mission to support and defend the Constitution while protecting our way of life," Mattis continued. "Our Department is proven to be at its best when the times are most difficult. So keep the faith in our country and hold fast, alongside our allies, aligned against our foes."

Mattis, 68, added that "it has been my high honor to serve at your side."

"May God hold you safe in the air, on land, and at sea," he concluded.

The memo did not mention Trump, and is likely to be Mattis' last formal opportunity to say goodbye to a U.S. military that he served as a Marine for more than 40 years, rising to become a four-star general. It has echoes of a speech Mattis delivered at the May 2017 commencement ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in which he repeatedly praised U.S. troops with the motivational phrase "you hold the line."

Like his pointed resignation letter, Mattis's goodbye memo stresses the need to stand alongside allies, something Trump has repeatedly questioned. Trump dismissed the concerns Mattis raised in his resignation letter Dec. 23, saying in a tweet that "many of these same countries take advantage of their friendship with the United States."

"General Mattis did not see this as a problem," Trump tweeted. "I DO, and it is being fixed!"

In keeping with Mattis's wishes, the Pentagon will not hold a traditional farewell ceremony for him. Pentagon chiefs who leave office -- even when forced out -- typically are sent off with a ceremony in which the president plays a prominent role.

"Secretary Mattis prefers that today, like every day, the focus remain on the mission and those who carry it out," said Dana White, the chief Pentagon spokeswoman.

In January 2015, President Barack Obama lauded departing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a farewell event at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, a short walk from Arlington National Cemetery. Though Hagel resigned under pressure from the White House, Obama crediting him with better positioning "this institution" for the future and the two leaders embraced.

In February 2013, Obama had similarly kind words for former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta when he left his office. In another ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Obama said he asked Panetta to be his defense secretary several times and believed the defense secretary helped protect the American dream.

In June 2011, Obama told departing Defense Secretary Robert Gates during a ceremony that he had clearly been one of the best in history to hold the job. He credited him with saving American lives by pressing for mine-resistant vehicles, drones and shorter medical evacuation times in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mattis is expected to turn over control of the department to Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on an acting basis, with the Defense Department joining several others in the federal government with acting officials in charge amid turmoil in the Trump administration. It isn't clear how long it will take Trump to name a permanent successor, who must be confirmed by the Senate.

The transition to Shanahan will occur before midnight Monday through a phone call, according to a defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the transition. It is considered a courtesy and mark of respect for the incoming secretary, the official added.

Once the phone call is complete, the Pentagon will notify the White House that Shanahan has assumed his duties as the acting secretary. The call will follow an approved script, which the Pentagon is not authorized to release, the official said.

Shanahan takes over on acting basis with about 18 months as deputy defense secretary. In that time, he has managed many day-to-day operations in the Pentagon and occasionally filled in for Mattis in meetings with allies. However, he does not have the breadth and depth of foreign-policy and military experience that Mattis does. Before joining the administration, Shanahan served as an executive with the defense contractor Boeing.

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