Jim Mattis, a retired general and former defence secretary, castigated Donald Trump as an immature president making “a mockery” of the constitution as he joined a chorus of retired military officers who have slammed the president for his response to the George Floyd protests.
“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,” Mr Mattis wrote in The Atlantic magazine. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort . . . three years without mature leadership.”
Mr Mattis, a retired Marine general who was seen as one of “the adults” in the Trump administration, quit in 2018 after Mr Trump took a snap decision to remove troops from Syria over his objections and those of other military officials. Critics of Trump had urged him to speak out in the months that followed, but he had stayed out of the fray until Wednesday.
His comments came one day after Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the joint chiefs, lambasted the president over his handling of the crisis — including his widely panned photo-op at a church across the street from the White House. Mr Mullen said Mr Trump’s response to the protests risked politicising the men and women of the American military.
Mr Trump’s military critics have focused on two issues. They have rebuked the president for threatening to send active-duty soldiers into the streets if state governors do not crack down on the protests. He has considered using the 1807 Insurrection Act to override opposition from governors.
They also criticised the use of law enforcement to disperse a peaceful crowd — including with chemical agents — protesting in Washington on Monday to clear the path for Mr Trump so he could pose for his church pictures.
Mr Mattis wrote that when he joined the military he never dreamt 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”.
On Tuesday, Mr Mullen, who served as chairman of the joint chiefs under presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, wrote that he had been “sickened” to see security personnel, including National Guard soldiers, “forcibly and violently” clear a path to allow Mr Trump to walk from the White House to St John’s Episcopalian church.
Minutes after threatening to send “thousands of heavily armed soldiers” into Washington, Mr Trump walked from the White House, across a park that had been cleared, to the historic church.
Mr Trump held up a copy of the Bible as he posed for pictures, but did not open or cite passages from the book. He was accompanied by Mark Esper, the defence secretary, and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs, who have since distanced themselves from the president’s actions, saying they were unaware of what Mr Trump was planning.
Referring to the criticisms from retired officers who avoid wading into politics, Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security and former John McCain aide, said: “The dam is broken.”
“On the one side, you have a president seemingly opposed to protesters and mulling the Insurrection Act,” said Mr Fontaine. “On the other you have General Mattis, Admiral Mullen, and now Secretary Esper and General Milley supporting the protesters and rejecting the use of troops. It’s a major, welcome shift.”