Former Defense Secretary Mattis breaks silence and tears into Trump: 'He tries to divide us'

Key Points
  • Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis ripped into his former boss President Donald Trump in a scathing Wednesday night statement. 
  • "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 wrote.
Former Defense Sec. James Mattis calls Trump a threat to Constitution

WASHINGTON — Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis ripped into his former boss President Donald Trump in a scathing Wednesday night statement

"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 wrote in a statement published by The Atlantic. "We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership," he wrote, adding that he "watched this week's unfolding events, angry and appalled."

Mattis' statement comes as the nation braces for the ninth day of protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd. Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. 

The ensuing civil unrest, some of which turned violent, prompted Trump to call for governors to use harsher tactics and greater force when confronting protesters.

On a Monday call with state governors, a recording of which was obtained by NBC News, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told states "to dominate the battle space" when dealing with the demonstrations. Trump also said on the same call that he was putting the nation's highest-ranking military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley "in charge" of protest response efforts.

Mattis, who resigned from the Trump administration in December 2018, criticized Esper's terminology.

"We must reject any thinking of our cities as a 'battlespace' that our uniformed military is called upon to 'dominate," he explained. "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."

On Wednesday, Esper told reporters at the Pentagon that he was using military lexicon but regretted using the term.

Mattis also took issue with a Monday night incident in which protestors were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square, a small park in front of the president's residence.

"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," Mattis explained. 

Trump walked through the square with several members of his Cabinet to stand in front of St. John's Church while holding a Bible and posing for photographs. He later motioned to members of his Cabinet to join him for more pictures.

Esper, who has previously said he would preserve the U.S. military's apolitical nature, entered the frame and stood alongside Trump for the photo op. In a Tuesday night interview with NBC News, Esper said: "I didn't know where I was going" when asked about the highly criticized photo opportunity. "I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops."

President Donald Trump walks with US Attorney General William Barr (L), US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper (C), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley (R), and others from the White House to visit St. John's Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP via Getty Images

"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," Mattis added.

"We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution."

Trump fired back in a Wednesday night tweet by saying, he "had the honor of firing Jim Mattis, the world's most overrated General." He continued by saying that he "didn't like his "leadership" style or much else about him."

"Glad he is gone!"

Before Mattis became Trump's Defense secretary, the four-star Marine Corps general led the U.S. Central Command, the combat command responsible for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mattis, a revered Marine with a military career spanning four decades, was hailed for his battlefield prowess and kinship with rank-and-file servicemembers.

Throughout his military career, Mattis was affectionately referred to as "Mad Dog" and "warrior monk." He was known for his strategy, matter-of-factness and disdain for PowerPoint, which is recognized as the U.S. military's signature teaching tool.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, Commander, U.S. Central Command, talks to Marines on Dec. 25, 2011, in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Department of Defense photo

In his extraordinary resignation letter that rocked Washington, Mattis wrote to Trump that he has "a right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours."

"My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors," Mattis said, "are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues."

The president has frequently lashed out at America's allies in France, the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany, while at times appearing to side with U.S. adversaries over his own officials.

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