For the first time since he left the Trump Administration 18 months ago, former Defense Secretary James Mattis broke his silence about the performance of the President. On Wednesday, he issued a scathing statement that criticized Donald Trump’s handling of the recent unrest in the country by being ineffective, self-serving and unconstitutional.
“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 says. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
Following his two-year stint as Pentagon chief that ended in December 2018, Mattis took pains to avoid questions about Trump’s behavior. What provoked him to speak out now, he says, was Trump’s inclination to use active duty troops to quell the violent unrest that has erupted across the country since George Floyd, an unarmed black man, died last week in Minneapolis police custody.
In the White House Rose Garden on Monday, Trump said he had instructed every governor to “deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets,” and if local leaders didn’t take such steps, he said, “then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” He then dispatched law enforcement officers to clear Lafayette Park outside the White House of more than a thousand protestors with pepper balls and rubber bullets and police officers swinging riot shields.
The Administration officials walked through the park before Trump stopped in front of the parish house of St. John’s Church, which had been vandalized the night before when protestors ignited a fire in the basement. He stood for pictures and requested his aides, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, who serves as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, to join. In the eyes of many Administration critics, the two men became “props” in a photo-op, which threatened the military’s longstanding reputation for non-partisanship.
Making the matter personal, Mattis called upon his more than 40 years in the Marines Corps, when he retired as a four-star general in 2014. “When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” he says. “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.”
Mattis says he “watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled.” He said the protesters are rightly demanding equal justice for Floyd’s death while Trump’s Administration has been wrong. “We do not need to militarize our response to protests,” Mattis says. “We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.”
About 1,600 active duty troops from Fort Bragg, N.C. and Fort Drum, N.Y. have been brought into the region around the District of Columbia in recent days. Law enforcement isn’t a mission that some of the soldiers are trained or equipped to do. For example, the 82nd Airborne Division sent soldiers to the Washington area Monday night, as part of what’s called an “Immediate Response Force.” The unit, which, like the others, is currently on standby status waiting to be called upon, is made up of active duty combat infantry troops who are trained to kill enemies in a combat zone, not police city streets.
Mattis left the Administration after Trump’s abrupt decision to pull out all 2,200 troops fighting ISIS in Syria. To Mattis, the pullout was abandoning a key ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia of mostly Kurdish and Arab fighters that was vital in the four-year-long war against ISIS. It marked the end of a tumultuous run as Defense Secretary, much of which was spent trying to thread the needle between implementing Trump’s policy objectives and maintaining long-standing American principles.
Since then, the President has ridiculed Mattis, calling him “the world’s most overrated general” in October 2019. A month earlier, during an hour-long sit-down interview with TIME, Mattis said he has a “duty” to keep silent but vowed to speak up at the right time.