ISIS was shrunken, but not yet fully defeated. And the move meant a radical reduction in American influence in Syria, an increase in the power of Russia and Iran to determine events there and quite possibly a land grab by the Turkish government, sworn enemy of the Kurds. Senior leadership of the U.S. government went into a panic. Capitol Hill, too. John Bolton, who was still the national security adviser then, and Virginia Boney, then the legislative affairs director of the National Security Council, hit the phones, calling more than a dozen senators from both parties. Mr. Bolton started each call, saying, in an apologetic tone, “This is the mind of the president, he wants to bring home our troops,” and then switched to frank talk about what might be done. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was beside himself. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, who served during the Iraq War, was dumbstruck. So was Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska, a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Is there any way we can reverse this?” he pleaded. “What can we do?”
That’s what Mr. Mattis wondered. He’d worked nearly two years developing techniques to try to manage Mr. Trump, from colorful PowerPoint slides to several kinds of flattery. This was his moment. The next day, he suited up, put on his cherished, navy blue NATO tie, with the four-pointed symbol of the alliance from which Mr. Trump had threatened to withdraw, and entered the Oval Office. He tried every technique — his entire arsenal, every tack, every argument. The president was unmoved. Mr. Mattis paused, and then pulled from his breast pocket an envelope with his resignation letter.
Down the hall, the very next day, Mr. Kelly was almost done cleaning out his office. He, too, had had enough. He and Mr. Trump had been at each other every day for months. Later, he told The Washington Examiner, “I said, whatever you do — and we were still in the process of trying to find someone to take my place — I said whatever you do, don’t hire a ‘yes man,’ someone who won’t tell you the truth — don’t do that.” But, in fact, that’s exactly what Mr. Trump wanted. Seventeen months as chief of staff, stopping Mr. Trump from umpteen crazy moves, from calling in the Marines to shoot migrants crossing the Rio Grande — “It’s illegal, sir, and the kids, they’re good kids, they just won’t do it” — to invading Venezuela. The list was long. Were they just trial balloons? Sure, some were. And, if someone wasn’t there to challenge Mr. Trump, might they have risen to action? Surely.
“I think the biggest shock he had — ’cause his assumption was the generals, ‘my generals,’ as he used to say and it used to make us cringe — was this issue of, I think, he just assumed that generals would be completely loyal to the kaiser,” a former senior official told me. “And when we weren’t, that was a huge shock to him, because he thought if anyone was going to be loyal, it would be the generals. And the first people he realized were not loyal to him were the generals.”
This shock, and his first two-plus years of struggle with seasoned, expert advisers, led to an insight for Mr. Trump. It all came back to loyalty. He needed to get rid of any advisers or senior officials who vowed loyalty to the Constitution over personal loyalty to him. Which is pretty much what he proceeded to do.
In February 2019, William Barr arrived as attorney general, having auditioned for the job with a 19-page memo arguing in various and creative ways that the president’s powers should be exercised nearly without limits and his actions stand virtually beyond review. He stood ready to brilliantly manage the receipt of the Mueller Report in March. Mr. Barr’s moves constituted what amounted to a clean kill, decapitating the sprawling nearly two-year investigation led by his old friend with a single blow.