Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis thinks President Donald Trump is a juvenile and divisive leader who poses a fundamental threat to the republic. Most Senate Republicans say that’s just, like, his opinion, man.
Mattis had largely remained quiet about his former boss after resigning as defense secretary at the end of 2018 following Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria. His silence ended this week amid nationwide protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd.
In an extraordinary rebuke on Wednesday, Mattis excoriated Trump’s response to the civil unrest, writing that the president abused his power by cracking down on protesters at the White House and has sown division rather than working to unite Americans.
“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, a retired four-star Marine general, wrote in a letter published by The Atlantic.
The unusually pointed criticism from someone Trump had repeatedly praised was received by most Senate Republicans in much the same way they have prior condemnations of Trump by other top officials from his administration: a huge shrug.
“I think that’s one individual’s view,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said Thursday. “I don’t think that’s going to make a difference like some have talked about in terms of being the straw the breaks the camel’s back, so to speak.”
Sure, there were some exceptions. But those came from familiar voices.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is known to sometimes break from her party but nevertheless voted to acquit Trump during his impeachment trial earlier this year, called Mattis’ letter “true, honest, necessary and overdue.” Yet Murkowski told reporters on Capitol Hill that she continues to “struggle” with whether to support the president in the 2020 election, even though she agrees with the letter.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), another critic of Trump’s, called Mattis’ broadside “powerful” and “stunning,” praising his “extraordinary service and sacrifice and great judgment.” The senator, who voted to convict Trump in February, did not say whether he agreed with Mattis.
Most of their colleagues either refrained from commenting or sought to downplay Mattis’ criticism of Trump ― a recurring pattern for Republican lawmakers, who have feared reprisals from the president and his supporters.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a veteran and a member of GOP leadership, declined to comment. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who is very active on Twitter, said he “didn’t see” the comments that drew big headlines this week.
“They’ve had a little bit of [a] history of differences,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said of the two men. “But I have a lot of respect for Gen. Mattis. I respect his opinion. I agree with most of them.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he was a “fan” of Mattis but defended Trump, noting the president had denounced Floyd’s death and addressed racial justice issues.
“The question is more about tone and words. [Trump] could do better. ... We need to continue to encourage the president to say what he’s said in his speeches,” Portman said.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), meanwhile, suggested that Mattis wasn’t media savvy and was somehow fooled into speaking out against the president.
“He was put in a situation where he was subjected to the press. ... A lot of the unfriendly media would like to put them in the situation, misquote them, misquote me,” Inhofe told HuffPost, adding that Mattis is “just not seasoned how to respond sometimes.”
When HuffPost noted Mattis wasn’t misquoted and that he put his thoughts down in a letter The Atlantic had published in full, Inhofe said, “That’s part of communication.”
“I don’t agree that I should pass judgment on what he should be writing,” Inhofe said when asked further if he agreed with the retired general.