Donald Trump's former defence chief James Mattis rips 'divisive' president in blistering intervention

Ben Riley-Smith
Mattis said Trump "does not even try" to unite the nation - REUTERS

Donald Trump’s former defence secretary has issued a blistering condemnation of the US president’s handling of the anti-racism protests, claiming “abuse" of power, calling his old boss willingly divisive and mentioning the Nazis. 

James Mattis had kept relatively quiet since quitting the Trump administration in December 2018 in opposition to withdrawal of US troops from Syria but has always said he would break his "duty of silence" if the president’s actions warranted it. 

On Wednesday evening, Mr Mattis did so in spectacular fashion, giving a 640-word statement to The Atlantic magazine that ranked as the strongest public rebuke of Mr Trump from a former member of his cabinet to date. 

“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” Mr Mattis began, setting the tone for a series of extraordinary statements about Mr Trump and the way the demonstrations that have swept the nation have been handled. 

“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 said. 

“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," he added, warning "this will not be easy". 

Mr Trump hit back on Twitter on Wednesday night, saying that firing Mr Mattis had been an "honour" and that he "didn’t like his 'leadership' style or much else about him":

Mr Mattis’s decision to single the US president out by name broke with an approach often adopted by prominent Republicans, who criticise the Oval Office-holder in generalities without being explicit about their target. 

His framing of Mr Trump not as the defender of the country’s unity but a problem that the rest of America had to work around was stark. 

Mr Mattis also singled out the incident in Lafayette Square, the park outside the White House from which peaceful protesters had been forced back by police with chemical gas and flash bangs to make way for Mr Trump to pose by a church with a bible.

“We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Park,” Mr Mattis wrote. “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”

While the White House has insisted it was William Barr, the US attorney-general, and not Mr Trump who had ordered police to push protesters back a block, Mr Mattis accusing his former administration of abusing its powers was another remarkable claim. 

Mr Mattis repeatedly came back to his central theme - that the right to peaceful protest was fundamental to America and must be protected - and at one point referenced the Nazis to make his argument. 

He wrote: "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.”

Mr Mattis noted that the phrase ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ was so central to US society that it had been carved into the pediment of the US Supreme Court. He said that was what the anti-racism protesters were demanding, adding only a “small number” were law-breakers. 

In another not-so-hidden dig at the president, Mr Mattis singled out Mr Trump’s language for criticism. “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate’,” Mr Mattis wrote. 

“At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors.

“Militarising our response, as we witnessed in Washington, DC, sets up a conflict - a false conflict - between the military and civilian society.” 

The breadth of Mr Mattis’s critique - from Mr Trump’s rhetoric and presidential approach to his actions in Lafayette Square and proposal to deploy the army - combined with the severity of the language amounted to an eye-catching rebuke. 

Mr Mattis’s reluctance to criticise the president publicly in the past, his military credentials - he is a four-star general with decades of real battlefield experience - and the praise Mr Trump once lavished on him while in office all added to the intervention’s weight.

It also reflected wider tensions with the military, with Mark Esper, the current US defence secretary, saying publicly that he opposed deploying active-duty troops on the streets to counter demonstrations on Wednesday, despite Mr Trump’s threat to do just two days earlier.