Former Defense Secretary Mattis levels extraordinary criticism of Trump

James Mattis, pictured here as secretary of Defense in November 2018.
James N. Mattis, President Trump’s former secretary of Defense, criticized his onetime boss Wednesday.
(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

President Trump’s effort to use the military to respond to nationwide protests led to an extraordinary rupture with both his current and former secretaries of Defense on Wednesday, with one rejecting use of active-duty troops against protesters and the other accusing Trump of ordering the military to “violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens.”

That statement by former Defense Secretary James N. Mattis was without precedent as criticism of a sitting president from a former Pentagon chief, and the effects on Trump are likely to be far-reaching.

Mattis, who resigned as Defense secretary in late 2018, denounced Trump for his actions on Monday, in which the president walked through Lafayette Park near the White House to pose in front of a church after protesters had been driven from the park by police and military units firing tear gas.


As a young Marine, Mattis wrote, he swore an oath to defend the Constitution.

“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance 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,” he wrote in the statement, published by the Atlantic magazine.

“Donald Trump 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,” Mattis wrote. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”

Mattis’ words came just hours after current Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a Pentagon news conference that he opposed using active-duty troops against protesters, saying it should be done “only in the most urgent and dire of situations.”

“We are not in one of those situations now,” Esper said.

“I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” he said, rejecting an option Trump had threatened to use to send troops into cities where state and local officials have not quelled unrest.

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany offered a notably lukewarm response a few hours later when asked whether Trump still had confidence in Esper.

“As of right now, Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper,” she said, noting that should things change the press would be “the first to know.”

She also said the president has the “sole authority” to invoke the Insurrection Act, and that the move is still being considered.

Trump himself responded to Mattis on Wednesday evening on Twitter, saying, “Probably the only thing Barack Obama and I have in common is that we both had the honor of firing Jim Mattis, the world’s most overrated General.”

“I didn’t like his leadership style or much else about him, and many others agree. Glad he is gone,” he added.

Trump did not, in fact, fire Mattis. The former Marine general resigned in December 2018 in protest over Trump’s policies in Syria. Mattis had planned to remain on the job for several additional weeks, but Trump accelerated his departure once the resignation letter — and Mattis’ criticism of Syria policy — became public.

Since leaving the job, Mattis had, until now, refused to criticize Trump in public. But his statement took aim directly at one of Trump’s main reelection themes — his claim that toughness and strength will succeed in getting the country through the multiple crises that have gripped his administration since February.

Mattis’ reputation as a widely admired military leader could give his criticism extra weight among Republican voters concerned about national security. His plea for unity, rather than the division that Mattis said Trump promotes, dovetails with a main theme of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who has made restoring a sense of national unity a centerpiece of his campaign.

A former Marine general, Mattis was initially lauded by Trump after he chose him as his first Defense secretary. The president seemed to revel in Mattis’ reputation as a blunt-talking warrior.

Mattis has always described himself as apolitical, and he kept a low public profile while secretary, seeking to avoid highlighting his disagreements with Trump over strategy and the use of the military.

The two gradually grew apart during Mattis two years in office, as Trump came to resent Mattis’ frequent moves to head off ideas for the military that Trump favored.

In his statement Wednesday, Mattis described himself as “angry and appalled” by the administration’s response to the protests.

He defended the protesters, calling them “people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values.” He challenged Trump’s claim that the military was needed to put down looters and vandals among the protesters, urging the public not to be “distracted by a small number of lawbreakers.”

Mattis also condemned language Esper used Monday after joining a conference call between Trump and governors in which he said state governments should “dominate the battle space” against protesters.

“We must reject any thinking of our cities as ‘battle space’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,’” Mattis said. “We know we are better than the abuse of executive authority we witnessed in Lafayette Park.”

Though Mattis did not mention the election, he concluded with a call to “reject” and “hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”

Praise from Democrats for Mattis’ words, some of whom clashed with him while he was at the Pentagon, was immediate and effusive.

“This is what it looks like to put patriotism over party,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said in a tweet.

Trump quickly turned to the military after riots erupted in Minnesota and many other states after Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee for nearly nine minutes into the neck of George Floyd, a black man whom Chauvin and three other officers had arrested, resulting in his death.

So far only National Guard troops have been deployed against protesters in cities and states across the country, which is permitted under federal law as long as they are under state control. But Trump warned Monday that he was considering sending “thousands” of heavily armed troops to states unless local authorities halted what he described as rioting

Until Wednesday, Esper had seemed in sync with Trump.

But a senior Defense official said Esper found himself in a “no-win situation” after trying to navigate between the need to publicly support Trump and to lead a department that prefers to keep clear of domestic involvement and politics.

“Are there officers who were uncomfortable with the prospect that their soldiers would be ordered onto the streets with orders to crack down on the Americans protesting racial injustice? Very much so,” said a senior military commander, who spoke on the condition he not be identified.

“Did some express their views up the chain that sending in troops was a bad idea. Yes.”

That discomfort could be seen in a memo issued Wednesday by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley.

The Constitution “gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and of peaceful assembly,” Milley wrote, calling on the armed forces to “uphold the values of our nation, and to operate consistent with national laws and our own high standards of conduct at all times.”

He was one of several senior military commanders who have issued memos or statements in recent days criticizing racism or defending the right to protest — language that puts them out of step with Trump’s emphasis on “law and order.”

Esper also faced criticism from retired senior military officers and former Defense Department officials, some of whom said he had stepped over the proper line for a Defense secretary in his earlier backing of Trump’s advocacy of a military response.

“You may not have been able to stop President Trump from directing this appalling use of force, but you could have chosen to oppose it. Instead you visibly supported it,” James N. Miller, a former senior Pentagon official, wrote to Esper on Tuesday in a letter resigning from a Defense Department advisory board.

“I must now ask: if last night’s blatant violations do not cross the line for you, what will?”

In an interview with NBC News on Tuesday night, Esper said he was given no notice before Trump led him, Milley and other senior administration officials to St. John’s Episcopal Church, just north of the White House, for a widely criticized photo opportunity.

Esper told reporters he believed they were going to observe a vandalized public bathroom.

“I did know that, following the president’s remarks on Monday evening, that many of us were going to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park, and at St. John’s Episcopal Church,” Esper said Wednesday. “What I was not aware of was exactly where we were going, when we arrived at the church, and what the plans were once we got there.”

Esper said he also regretted using the term “battle space” to describe areas gripped by protests.

“In retrospect, I would use different wording so as not to distract from the more important matters at hand or allow some to suggest that we are militarizing the issue,” he said.

Esper strongly criticized the actions of Minneapolis police, calling the death of Floyd “murder” and “a horrible crime.”

White House officials emphasized Tuesday that Trump still may call on active-duty troops to patrol the streets of Washington and other cities if the protests continue.

Trump and other top White House officials were “not happy” with Esper’s comments, a senior Trump aide said, saying they “added to the frustration with him.”