President Donald Trump is facing an unprecedented revolt from the elite corps of ex-military leaders and presidents over his brazen response to mass protests and inflaming of racial divides.
In a true Washington bombshell on Wednesday evening, former Defense Secretary James Mattis, a warrior revered by his troops, told Americans they must come together without the President.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try,” said Mattis, who has kept silent since resigning in 2018.
“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,” said the retired Marine general in a statement, criticizing Trump for threatening to deploy regular troops to quell unrest in a flagrant threat to US political stability.
The statement will come as a body blow to Trump, who although he latterly turned against his ex-defense secretary, idolizes generals and loved referring to Mattis as “Mad Dog.”
It is particularly extraordinary since it appears to imply that an order by Trump for troops to deploy against protesters would be a breach of their constitutional oath. And since former top military brass remain highly loyal to their comrades and plugged into the Pentagon, one of the most political of power centers, Mattis’ broadside will spark speculation as to whether he is conveying the thoughts of serving senior officers who are unable to speak out.
Trump’s initial reaction was to discredit Mattis, who served in combat roles in two Iraq wars and in Afghanistan but who the President described on Twitter as “the world’s most overrated General.”
But, he notes, “His primary strength was not military, but rather personal public relations. I gave him a new life, things to do, and battles to win, but he seldom ‘brought home the bacon’. I didn’t like his ‘leadership’ style or much else about him, and many others agree. Glad he is gone!”
Also on Wednesday evening, retired Gen. John Allen, the former commander of American forces in Afghanistan, took his own turn at attacking Trump’s response in a commentary published by Foreign Policy.
“It wasn’t enough that peaceful protesters had just been deprived of their first-amendment rights—this photo-op sought to legitimize that abuse with a layer of religion,” wrote Allen.
He was referring to the order given to federal security forces on Monday to clear protesters from Lafayette Square before the President emerged from the White House to stand in front of St. John’s Church and hold a Bible aloft.
Allen winds up hoping this will all lead to a more enlightened America.
But, he notes, “it will have to come from the bottom up. For at the White House, there is no one home.”
The blasts from Allen and Mattis, who is far more cerebral than his nickname may imply, escalated a broadening front against Trump by Washington establishment elites outside the congressional Republican Party. They came after Jimmy Carter completed the roster of living ex-presidents who have stepped into a leadership void left by Trump as the nation experiences mass protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a pandemic that has killed 107,000 Americans and a consequent economic meltdown.
Other senior military and political figures, including former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, have also felt compelled to speak out as they perceive core American values threatened by an unchained commander in chief.
No modern President has faced such opprobrium from his predecessors or the men who have won their public respect in the heat of battle and served presidents of both parties.
Trump’s presidency is now slipping ever closer to an existential crisis, five months before he faces judgment from voters after a campaign that is threatening to tear at social and racial wounds as never before during his turbulent term.
But Trump – who made a political career out of bashing the establishment and torching presidential norms – is showing no sign of backing down. On Wednesday he lambasted “looters,” “hoodlums” and “terrorists” he claims are behind nationwide unrest. His aides, meanwhile, concocted ever more outrageous propaganda to justify his behavior, comparing his divisive stunt at a Washington church on Monday to Winston Churchill in World War II and President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks.
Trump is now furious with the current defense secretary, Mark Esper, who spoke out against the President’s threat to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to deploy troops inside the US.
The Pentagon chief is on thin political ice, as Trump’s conservative media enablers egg him on. One ally, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, demanded an “overwhelming show of force” in a New York Times op-ed in defiance of “delusional” local leaders.
Wednesday brought another confusing whirl of fearful imagery with soldiers in combat fatigues on the streets of Washington and more looting in New York, though most protests across the country were increasingly peaceful. There were also inspirational acts as Capitol Police knelt before protesters and stories emerged of some white Americans perceiving for the first time the prejudice experienced by their black compatriots.
There is a palpable feeling that the country is at a signature moment in its racial journey after the death of Floyd last week with a policeman’s knee on his neck, the latest sign of brutality toward African Americans that has shocked all races.
There was also a glimpse of the politics of hope, as former President Barack Obama implied that the answer to the tumultuous events of recent days was not the “domination” ordered by Trump but new motivation to turn protests into meaningful political change. Obama also dismissed the idea that America has plunged into the misery of a 1968-style race and political nightmare, noting that the multi-ethnic crowds of protesters thronging US streets were themselves a sign of dynamic progress.
“For those who have been talking about protests, just remember, this country was founded on protest. It is called the American Revolution,” Obama said in a Zoom call with his youth organization, in an apparent indirect reference to Trump.
“And every step of progress in this country, every expansion of freedom, every expression of our deepest ideals, has been won through efforts that made the status quo uncomfortable. And we should all be thankful for folks who are willing in a peaceful, disciplined way to be out there making a difference,” he added.
‘Angry and appalled’
Mattis, a statesman soldier respected across political lines who is a hero to the troops he led in Iraq and elsewhere, had vowed to stay out of politics in retirement. But his message made it clear that he could no longer hold his silence after watching a series of incidents he said had left him “angry and appalled.”
“We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values – our values as people and our values as a nation,” Mattis wrote.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and 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.”
“Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, DC, 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,” Mattis wrote.
In another explosive passage, Mattis recalled the instructions sent to US troops before they stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944, implying that the President had more in common with mortal US enemies than the traditions of American democracy.
“The Nazi slogan for destroying us … was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’ We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis – confident that we are better than our politics,” he wrote.
The former defense secretary also implicitly criticized Esper, who referred to US cities as “battle space,” a term he says he now regrets.
Esper in trouble?
The message from Mattis broke on another extraordinary day in which it emerged that Esper may be on borrowed time after holding a news conference in which he said that regular troops should be used as law enforcement only as a last resort.
“We are not in one of those situations now,” Esper told reporters. “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,.”
His comments angered the White House, where multiple sources said he had already frustrated Trump.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said that “as of right now Secretary Esper is still Secretary Esper” in a non-endorsement of the defense secretary.
If Esper pays for his dissent with his job, he will become just the latest senior US official to do so for prioritizing their duties to the rule of law or to their perception of US national interest. Trump demands total loyalty, despite his frequent power grabs that threaten the constitutional guardrails of his office. That’s why men such as Mattis and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are no longer in the Cabinet – and Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are still serving the President.
Carter said Wednesday that “silence can be as deadly as violence” and called on Americans in positions of “power, privilege, and moral conscience” to fight racial discrimination, in his first public reaction to unrest surrounding the police killing of Floyd.
Former Presidents Bush and Bill Clinton had previously issued statements calling on Americans to engage in self-examination about the country’s racial scars and to commit to building a new society.
Trump continued on Wednesday to portray protests across the nation following Floyd’s death as an uprising of radicals, as he presses home his hardline “law and order” election theme.
He tweeted that if people watched media coverage they would think that “killers, terrorists, arsonists, anarchists, thugs, hoodlums, looters, ANTIFA & others, would be the nicest, kindest most wonderful people in the Whole Wide World. No, they are what they are - very bad for our Country!”
But the most significant statement of the day came from a former general who may have the most capacity of any Washington elite to undermine Trump with the military that is at his command.