"Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people," retired Gen. James Mattis said

By Adam Carlson
June 04, 2020 10:10 AM
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Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis (left) and President Donald Trump
Steven Ferdman/Getty; Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock

Last summer, the retired Marine Corps general who had served as Donald Trump's first defense secretary — before resigning in December 2018 with a headline-grabbing letter — suggested he would not always keep quiet about his opinion of the president.

"There is a period in which I owe my silence. It’s not eternal," James Mattis told The Atlantic then. "It’s not going to be forever."

In a blistering and lengthy denunciation issued this week, Mattis for the first time made his feelings clear about his former boss and the Trump administration's response to the unrest around the country in the wake of George Floyd's death.

"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, 69, said in his statement, a kind of open letter titled "IN UNION THERE IS STRENGTH" that was sent to various news outlets on Wednesday.

"We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership," Mattis continued. He likened Trump's divisive style, in his words, to Germany's World War II-era strategy while fighting the U.S.

"Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that '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 said.

The White House quickly bit back, with Trump, 73, calling Mattis "the world’s most overrated General."

"Former Secretary Mattis’ 'article' is little more than a self-promotional stunt to appease the DC elite," White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany tweeted, adding: "Mattis’ small words pale in comparison to @POTUS’ strong action."

Trump on Twitter also falsely said he'd fired Mattis, though the retired general had resigned in disagreement with Trump over removing troops from Syria during the campaign against the Islamic State.

In his statement this week, Mattis said he "watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled." He took particular umbrage at the president's threat to send the military into communities that do not quell protesters to his satisfaction, despite multiple governors saying such a move would inflame tensions further.

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2011
Chris Kleponis/AFP/Getty

While Trump has expressed solidarity with the family of George Floyd, who died in police custody in Minneapolis last week after an officer pinned his neck down as he pleaded for air, the president's focus has become the ongoing protests.

Many of the demonstrations are peaceful, and former presidents including George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have spoken out on the persistent racial inequities in America that compelled people into the streets, sparked by Floyd's death and the killings of other people of color this year, including Breonna Taylor.

Some protests, however, have descended into rioting and violence, with businesses ransacked and buildings and vehicles burned. A California federal officer was fatally shot last week during a protest in Oakland, California; and a retired police captain in St. Louis was killed this week while protecting a friend's store from looters.

There have been other reports and videos of law enforcement attacking demonstrators without provocation, further evidence of what activists say is a years-long trend of militarizing the police, rather than training them in proper use of force.

Trump has compared some protesters to "thugs" and "terrorists" and said a large government force was needed to "dominate the streets" — rhetoric some local lawmakers quickly criticized as incendiary.

In Washington, D.C., where the president has more authority, federal law enforcement agents and military police have been marshaled.

On Monday, authorities forcefully cleared away demonstrators from the White House fence — long a site of near-constant protests of one kind or another — so Trump and his aides could walk a short distance to the nearby St. John's church for photographs.

The White House said the appearance projected resolve, but the photo-op was widely criticized by Democrats, activists and local religious leaders.

Mattis agreed.

"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," he said.

RELATED VIDEO: Voices from Protests After George Floyd's Death — 'Our Skin Color Should Not Be Considered a Weapon'

President Donald Trump (left) next to former Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2017
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

"We must reject any thinking of our cities as a 'battlespace' that our uniformed military is called upon to 'dominate,' " Mattis said. "At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. 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."

"We do not need to militarize our response to protests," he said. "We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law."

Mattis ended his statement — an exceptional rebuke of a commander-in-chief by one of his former top officials — by looking beyond the Oval Office.

"We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society," he said. "This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children."

"We can come through this trying time stronger, and with a renewed sense of purpose and respect for one another. The pandemic has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their country," 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. At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s 'better angels,' and listen to them, as we work to unite."

Mattis concluded: "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."