Former U.S. defense secretary and retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis slammed his former boss in a letter published Wednesday by The Atlantic, calling out the violent clearing of protesters outside the White House and accusing the president of deliberately trying to fracture the nation.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try,” Mattis wrote. “Instead he tries to divide us.”
“We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort,” he continues. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
While reports emerged earlier in the Trump presidency of Mattis’ issues with Trump, Wednesday’s letter marks the first time he has spoken out publicly and forcefully against the president, a move likely sparked by Trump’s response this week to the national unrest that has followed the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white cop — now facing murder charges — kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Mattis referred to Monday night outside the White House in particular, when federal troops forcefully cleared protesters so that Trump could walk to a nearby church and pose for a photo holding a Bible.
“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” Mattis wrote. “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 provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
The president was joined in that walk by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
“We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square,” Mattis wrote. “We must reflect and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution. At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s ‘better angels,’ and listen to them, as we work to unite.”
Mattis also clapped back at Esper calling American cities a “battlespace” that must be conquered back from protesters over the weekend.
“We should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors,” he wrote. “Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., 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,” he continued. “Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders who best understand their communities and are answerable to them.”
Mattis called on Americans to unite without Trump, “drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society.”
“This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generation that bled to defend our promise; and to our children,” he said.
Mattis wrote that protesters across the country are out there for “equal justice under the law,” a demand he called “wholesome and unifying.”
“We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers,” he wrote. “The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values — our value as people and our values as a nation.”
The president responded in several tweets a few hours after the publication of Mattis’ letter:
Mattis resigned as defense secretary in December 2018 over the president’s planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and his criticism of foreign allies.
Trump said a few months later that Mattis was fired because Trump wasn’t happy with his performance.
The president reportedly first called Mattis “the world’s most overrated general” during a tense White House meeting in October.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.