James Mattis: Trump ‘tries to divide us’ and we must reject those who ‘make a mockery of our Constitution’

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President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis

President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis has released a letter condemning President Donald Trump, marking the first time the former administration official has spoken out publicly against the president after resigning in protest in Dec. 2018.

"Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try," Mattis wrote. "Instead he tries to divide us. 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."

Related: Read Secretary Mattis' Letter Of Resignation

Though Mattis recently published a book on leadership and returned to Stanford's Hoover Institution, where he's conducting research and teaching classes, the 70-year-old retired Marine general had notably stayed silent about Trump since leaving the Pentagon. This despite Trump calling Mattis "overrated" and falsely claiming he fired him from his Pentagon post.

After accepting Mattis' resignation letter, which was published almost immediately in the press, Trump praised him on Twitter as serving "with distinction" after having made "tremendous progress" at the Pentagon. Days later, Trump reversed course.

In his letter, Mattis wrote that he grew "angry and appalled" after watching the events of the past week. He asked that Americans not be distracted by the "small number of lawbreakers" amid tens of thousands of people protesting against police brutality, in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer.

"We must reject any thinking of our cities as a 'battlespace'" wrote Mattis, referring to Defense Secretary Mark Esper's use of the term to describe cities, which he said need to be "dominated."

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, hours after the letter was sent to reporters, Trump falsely claimed on Twitter that he had "fired" Mattis. "I asked for his letter of resignation [and] felt great about it," Trump wrote, adding a bizarre claim that he changed Mattis' nickname to "Mad Dog," a moniker attributed to Mattis by Marines under him that he has never liked. 

Speaking of Trump in his letter, Mattis wrote that "we can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. 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' letter came just a day after Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, wrote an op-ed for The Atlantic criticizing Trump and the response to protests. Others have also spoken out in recent days, including Adm. James Stavridis, Gen. Raymond Thomas, and Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Before being nominated to serve as Trump's defense secretary in Dec. 2016, Mattis served as an infantryman for 43 years in the Marine Corps, rising through the ranks to serve as the commander of U.S. Central Command before his 2013 retirement.

A legend in Marine circles who know him by his callsign "Chaos," Mattis was in command of the first Marines on the ground in Afghanistan in 2002, and later spearheaded the 2003 invasion of Iraq in command of the 1st Marine Division.

In an interview in August 2019, Mattis explained that he chose not to speak about Trump publicly since he had a duty to remain silent so those remaining in the administration can still do their jobs without him adding to criticism of the president. But, he added, "it's not eternal. It's not going to be forever."

Then- Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command, speaks to Marines with Marine Wing Support Group 27, May 6, 2007.

Then- Lt. Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Central Command, speaks to Marines with Marine Wing Support Group 27, May 6, 2007.

Here's the full statement from Mattis:

In Union There Is Strength

I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled. The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.

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.

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. 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. Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders who best understand their communities and are answerable to them.

James Madison wrote in Federalist 14 that “America united with a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a hundred thousand veterans ready for combat.” We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.

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.

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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

James Mattis