Mattis’ blistering criticisms, which were printed in The Atlantic on Wednesday, amount to an exclamation point on a brutal week of tension between Trump and his party after protesters were forcefully cleared from outside the White House for a presidential photo-op, and after Trump threatened to deploy troops to the streets of U.S. cities to quell unruly protests over the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
Yet Trump’s GOP firewall still seems largely secure.
“I don’t think that’s going to make a difference that some have talked about in terms of being the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.). “How many times have we heard that?”
Several GOP senators took pains not to criticize either man, while some simply said they hadn’t read Mattis’ remarks and declined to address them. It was an uncomfortable question for Republicans, who have uniformly praised Mattis over the years and often took his side when he clashed with Trump over matters of foreign policy and national security.
“Those aren’t my words. That’s not the way I would describe what is a very difficult time in our country,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “But I have great respect for General Mattis.”
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, said Mattis is a “hero” and “one of my favorite people.” But he suggested that the circumstances of Mattis’ departure as defense secretary in December 2018 contributed to his sharp comments: “Once you’re fired, sometimes that affects your attitude.”
“They’ve got a little bit of a history on disagreements. So I’m not going to get in between a former secretary I have tremendous respect for and the president. That’s something for them to settle,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
Mattis resigned in 2018 after opposing Trump’s troop withdrawal from Syria. But he was wildly popular in Congress: Every senator except Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) supported his confirmation in 2017.
For years, Republicans leaned on Mattis’ steadying leadership as reason to be confident in the Trump administration. Former Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) once said Mattis was among the Trump officials who “help separate our country from chaos.”
Mattis spoke out on Wednesday after Trump threatened to deploy the military to American streets, breaking his self-imposed silence on matters involving his former boss. He described the commander-in-chief as a divider who threatens the constitutional order, and criticized “military leadership standing alongside” Trump during his photo-op at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.
“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.”
Trump responded quickly Wednesday night, calling Mattis “the world’s most overrated general” and saying he was glad Mattis is no longer leading the Pentagon. “His primary strength was not military, but rather personal public relations,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
On Thursday, some Republicans offered mild criticisms of the president’s handling of the protests that have engulfed the nation in recent days — from his hard-line rhetoric to his decision to clear out protesters for a photo-op on Monday night.
“I don’t think he’s trying to divide,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said of Trump. “But sometimes that message gets lost. Something because of the approach that’s taken, the message he’s trying to get across something gets lost.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who also showered Mattis with praise, also tacitly criticized the president’s tone and rhetoric, but declined to endorse Mattis’ view.
“The question is tone and words, and I think some of the tones and some of the words used should be focused more on healing and less on dividing,” Portman said.