Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who has largely kept silent on the president, issued a blistering statement Wednesday criticizing President Donald Trump and even implying he’s a threat to the US Constitution in a call for Americans to come together to oppose his actions.
“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” Mattis said in a statement given to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. He said that the president is actively trying to divide 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. Instead, he tries to divide us,” the legendary former Marine Corps general said. “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,” he continued in the letter first published by The Atlantic. “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.”
Mattis sharply criticized Trump’s militaristic response to ongoing protests.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” he said. “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 also called out the current secretary of defense, Mark Esper, who referred to American cities as a “battlespace” to be dominated.
“We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate.’ 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,” he said. “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 announced his resignation in December 2018. Trump announced his acting replacement, Patrick Shanahan, shortly thereafter. Mattis was a four-star general who once led the US Central Command and was celebrated as a top choice to lead the US military by lawmakers from both political parties.
In his resignation letter, Mattis cited disagreements with Trump’s policies as the reason for his decision to resign from the Defense Department. The move came amid Trump’s sudden decision to pull US forces out of Syria, contrary to the advice from senior military leaders.
“Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position,” he wrote.
Mattis referred to the importance of maintaining alliances in his letter: “We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by our alliances.”
Mattis later went on to poke fun at Trump in a light-hearted speech during the 74th Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York: “I earned my spurs on the battlefield … And Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor,” he said to laughter and applause from the audience.”
Jokes aside, Mattis has historically refrained from speaking out against Trump, unlike other senior White House officials who have left the administration.
During a panel with the Council of Foreign Relations in 2019, Mattis said that “when the time’s right to speak out about policy or strategy, I’ll speak out,” adding that he disagreed with other officials who immediately “get out and start talking.”
“What we commonly call a ‘kiss-and-tell’ now, I don’t think that’s the right thing to do,” Mattis said at the time.