It’s impossible to exaggerate the significance of former Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis’ decision to speak out against President Donald Trump’s attempt to use the U.S. military to advance a political agenda at a time of national trauma.
Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, largely has kept a low public profile since resigning in 2018 to protest the president’s impulsive decision to withdraw troops from Syria. But he was moved to issue a statement in response to Trump’s atrocious response to the widespread protests over the death in police custody of George Floyd.
Saying that he was “angered and appalled,” Mattis added: “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,” a reference to Trump posing outside historic St. John’s Church on June 1 after walking through an area cleared of protesters.
Trump has threatened to deploy U.S. troops to “quickly solve” problems associated with violence that state and local officials don’t resolve to his satisfaction — a move that even Trump’s current Defense secretary, Mark Esper, has criticized. Wrote Mattis: “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. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
Mattis isn’t alone among military figures in criticizing the president. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said that Trump “failed to project any of the higher emotions or leadership desperately needed in every quarter of this nation during this dire moment.”
Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was equally scathing about Trump’s performance at the church. Mullen wrote in the Atlantic that the president “laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.”
It’s ironic that former military leaders are in the forefront of the chorus in criticizing Trump’s divisive and self-serving response to a national crisis. After Trump appointed several military figures to key positions in his administration, there were concerns that his reliance on “my generals” might lead to undue involvement by the armed services. It turns out that some military leaders have a better understanding of the limited role of the military in a democracy than Trump does.
Ideally the generals’ criticism will embolden others — especially Republicans in Congress — to speak up. At least two have done so: Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah both threw their support Thursday behind Mattis and his comments. If war is too important to be left to the generals, so is holding an unfit president accountable.