“What’s he done for me? How has he done in Afghanistan? Not too good. Not too good,” Trump said during a Cabinet meeting, with Shanahan seated to his left. “I’m not happy with what he’s done in Afghanistan, and I shouldn’t be happy.”
Trump added: “As you know, President Obama fired him, and essentially so did I.”
Neither Mattis nor Shanahan could be reached for comment. The Pentagon did not respond to questions about Trump’s remarks.
Trump’s comments in the meeting about Syria and Afghanistan added new complications to discussions about U.S. plans in those countries.
Regarding Afghanistan, where about 14,000 troops are deployed, Trump questioned why Pakistan, India and Russia — the latter a U.S. adversary — aren’t more involved, and why the U.S. military strikes both the Islamic State and the Taliban in areas where the groups are fighting each other.
“I said, ‘Let them fight! They’re both our enemies! Let them fight!’ ” Trump said. “And then they go in and end up fighting both of them. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Regarding Syria, the president said that Iran can “do what they want there, frankly,” contradicting warnings from other senior U.S. officials and allies including Israel, who have warned for years that Iran wants to build a military presence in Syria.
About two weeks ago, Trump ordered all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria and directed withdrawal plans be drawn up for about half the forces in Afghanistan.
Trump initially wanted all U.S. troops out of Syria within 30 days, triggering Mattis’s resignation and concerns from Republicans and Democrats that the decision would create more chaos in the region. The president, in a video posted on his Twitter account Dec. 19, said U.S. troops were “all coming back” from Syria and that “they’re coming back now.”
The president has since softened on that approach and said Wednesday that the U.S. military will exit Syria “over a period of time.” He has agreed to give the military about four months to completely depart Syria, according to three U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal policy discussions. That development was first reported by the New York Times.
But U.S. officials suggested Wednesday that the plan remains unclear. While Trump agreed to a 120-day timeline, military officials have cautioned that an additional month or two would allow for a smoother transition and hope to persuade the president to give them more time, the officials said.
Officials at the State Department have struggled to explain the U.S. strategy in Syria to key foreign partners invested in the conflict, given the possibility that Trump’s advisers might persuade him to back off his initial withdrawal plan.
Pentagon officials, who rarely discuss troop movements before they occur, have declined to say how long a withdrawal will take.
“We are focused on a deliberate and controlled withdrawal of forces, taking all measures possible to ensure our troops’ safety as they continue in their mission of an enduring defeat of ISIS,” said Navy Cmdr. Sean Robertson, a Pentagon spokesman. “Out of concern for operational security, we are not going to discuss operational details.”
The discussions have added tension to the ascension of Shanahan, who joined the Trump administration in 2017 with years of management experience at Boeing but no government or military experience.
Shanahan said in a statement that he has tapped David L. Norquist, an undersecretary of defense who serves as comptroller, to perform the duties of the deputy defense secretary. Norquist has served as the Defense Department’s chief financial officer since mid-2017 and has “insight into virtually every tenet of this department,” Shanahan said.
Shanahan said in a tweet early Wednesday evening that his top priority is ensuring the Defense Department is lethal and agile. He has met with senior leaders and his policy team, and his focus remains on the National Defense Strategy, in which Mattis last year called for the Pentagon to prepare for threats posed by adversaries such as Russia and China, he wrote.
With Mattis gone, one of his planned moves — bringing in Marine Maj. Gen. Burke W. Whitman to serve as a new senior spokesman — will not happen. Whitman was expected to brief the media in 2019 alongside chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana W. White, who abruptly resigned on New Year’s Eve as Mattis left the Pentagon. White is under investigation by the Defense Department inspector general amid accusations that she directed subordinate staff members carry out menial tasks for her.
In the Pentagon’s history, there have been two previous acting defense secretaries: William P. Clements Jr. and William Howard Taft IV. Clements held the post for 39 days in 1973 after President Richard M. Nixon appointed Defense Secretary Elliot Richardson as attorney general, and Taft led the Pentagon for 60 days as the Senate rejected President George H.W. Bush’s first Pentagon chief nominee, John Tower, amid allegations of womanizing and alcohol abuse.
Trump said in a visit to Iraq last month that “everybody and his uncle” and “everybody and his aunt” has interest in becoming defense secretary, but he added that Shanahan “could be there for a long time.” The president did not say whether he meant in an acting capacity.
While serving as acting Pentagon chief, Shanahan will have the full authorities the job includes, said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine major general who helped write the Goldwater-Nichols Act that guides civilian control of the military. However, the framers of the law did not anticipate that someone would serve as acting defense secretary indefinitely without Senate confirmation, he said.
Punaro called Norquist a good choice to take on deputy defense secretary duties and said the decision was complicated by the departure in November of Chief Management Officer John “Jay” Gibson, who held the No. 3 position in the Pentagon. The duties of the chief management officer have been carried out since by Deputy Chief Management Officer Lisa Hershman, who has not gone through a Senate confirmation process.
Carter Ham, a retired Army general, described Shanahan as very capable but said he believes Trump should select a permanent defense secretary soon for the sake of continuity.
“The question I have is: How long does this persist?” said Ham, who is now the president and chief executive of the Association of the United States Army. “For lack of a better term, will the people who were on the Mattis team stay? If they don’t stay, I think it would be a little bit unusual for an acting secretary to build a team because the presumption is that the acting person is usually not the person who stays.”