War Stories

James Mattis’ Scathing Broadside Against Donald Trump Is Unprecedented

Mattis raises his hands while speaking.
Former Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations on Sept. 3 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Jim Mattis has broken his silence.

The retired Marine four-star general has refrained from criticizing President Donald Trump since writing a blistering letter of resignation in protest in December 2018, as he quit his post as secretary of defense. But Wednesday evening, Mattis unleashed a broadside worth the wait.

Expressing support for those protesting the murder of George Floyd and many other black Americans at the hands of police officers as “tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values,” Mattis wrote that he never dreamed that American troops, who have taken the oath to defend the Constitution, would ever be ordered “to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.” This was a clear and scathing reference to Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who stood alongside Trump at a photo-op outside St. John’s Church on Monday, wearing blatantly inappropriate battle dress.

Mattis added, “We must reject any thinking our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,’ ” an equally clear and scathing reference to the current secretary of defense, Mark Esper, who has described tactical planning for putting down protesters in precisely this language.

Mattis further stated that “militarizing” a response to protests “sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part.”

Instead, he went on, “we need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.”

Then he took aim at Trump.

“Donald Trump,” he wrote, “is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy … but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.”

He continued: “We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution. … Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.”

Mattis’ statement, which he emailed just before 6 p.m. on Wednesday to several journalists, including me, comes in the wake of a steady stream of memos and articles by active and retired generals and admirals, expressing disagreement with Trump’s policies on the protesters—but his is far harsher, and more critical of Trump’s entire tenure, than any statement made to date.

It also marks a new step for Mattis, one that he has been reluctant to take. Late last year, he wrote a memoir that, to the surprise of many, barely mentioned Trump. In promoting the book, he was often prodded by interviewers to say something, but he demurred, citing the military ethos of respecting civilian authority. Some, including his fellow retired officers, complained that he was trying to have it both ways—that if the principles were so important, he shouldn’t have criticized Trump’s policies when he resigned. In an interview with the Atlantic’s editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, he said that his silence would not be “eternal”—and Wednesday, he decided to make good on that promise.

Other retired four-star officers who have criticized Trump in recent days include Adm. Mike Mullen and Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA and NSA; Gen. Tony Thomas, former head of Special Operations Command; and, several months ago, Adm. William McRaven, the special ops commander who planned the raid on Osama bin Laden.

A few active-duty leaders have also issued memos, though not in public and more oblique in tone, including Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff; Kaleth Wright, chief master sergeant of the Air Force, the top enlisted man; and Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, superintendent of the Air Force Academy.

But Mattis, who was often called “the grown-up in the room” when he was secretary of defense, has a particularly avid following among the rank and file, and on Capitol Hill. A statement like this is likely to make a dent in Trump’s support in Washington, the conservative media, and possibly the armed forces.

Earlier on Wednesday, Esper, who had also appeared at Trump’s photo-op at St. John’s Church, announced that he opposed using active-duty troops against protesters—a surprising rebuke to Trump, who has threatened to do just that. Soon after, the AP reported that Esper had ordered troops who had been called into the D.C. area—for possible mobilization against protesters and looters—to return to their home bases. However, a few hours later, Army officers reported that Esper had reversed that order. It is unknown at this hour whether Esper is riding a sudden wave of principle—or whether he’s back in Trump’s pocket.

Meanwhile, the nation has never seen what is amounting to a movement of military officers, some of them well known, challenging the commander in chief. It is rocky territory. All officers have it pounded into their heads, from the time they’re cadets, that they should stay out of politics and obey lawful orders of civilian authority. But, as Mullen wrote in an article for the Atlantic, “I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump’s leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.”

It is hard to imagine that other officers aren’t asking themselves whether a line has been crossed in their conscience as well. Mattis has made the most dramatic break, but it is probably not the last.

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