James Mattis condemns Trump’s handling of George Floyd protests

Julian Borger in Washington
Photograph: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s first defence secretary, James Mattis, has delivered a blistering condemnation of the president, accusing him of abusing executive authority in his response to the recent wave of anti-racism protests that have convulsed cities across the US, and calling for him for to be held accountable. 

Mattis’s broadside breaks a near silence from the ex-Marine general since he resigned in December 2018. He expressed outrage at the militarisation of the administration’s response to mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd. 

“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” he said.

His statement, published by the Atlantic magazine, came on a day of confusion and discord in the Trump administration over the role of the military. Mattis’s successor as defence secretary, Mark Esper, had contradicted Trump over the president’s threatened invocation of the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active duty troops on US streets. 

Related: Pentagon chief opposes Trump threat to deploy military at protests

Esper had ordered elite airborne troops, flown to the Washington outskirts on Monday, back to their bases on Wednesday, but then reversed that order hours later after a visit to the White House.

The defence secretary had also sought to distance himself from a presidential publicity stunt on Monday, in which Trump had protestors cleared from Lafayette Park, a public area in front of the White House, so that he could be photographed outside a church that had been partially burned the previous day.

In his statement on Wednesday evening, Mattis said: “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.”

The former defence secretary added: “We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Park. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our constitution.”

Mattis recalled the distinction between US forces and the Nazis fighting on the Normandy beaches in 1944. The Nazi slogan was “Divide and conquer” while the American response was “In union there is strength”.

Mattis’s dramatic and long awaited intervention comes at a time when Trump appeared to be at a crossroads in his response to the protests. The White House signaled its displeasure with Esper’s rejection of the Insurrection Act and his efforts to distance himself from Trump’s actions. The president’s spokeswoman, asked whether Trump still had confidence in Esper, would only say, that he remained the defence secretary “as of right now”.

On the same day, a radical Republican senator, Tom Cotton, widely believed to have aspirations to replace Esper, was egging on the president to send troops into US cities.

“This week, rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy, recalling the widespread violence of the 1960s,” said Cotton, who has also urged military conflict with Iran, in a New York Times commentary.

“One thing above all else will restore order to our streets: an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers,” Cotton wrote.

Any attempt to use active duty troops, as opposed to the national guard which has already been widely deployed, threatens to split the US military, which is one of the country’s most diverse institutions.

Mattis reflected what is reported to be a widely held view in the armed services, in arguing the protesters were standing up for the constitutional principle of equality under the law, and should be universally supported.

“We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers,” he said. “The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values.”

“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the constitution,” Mattis wrote. “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.”

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

Mattis’s statement comes a day after a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Mike Mullen, expressed his own renunciation of the handling of the protests, reflecting deep unease among many serving officers.

Mullen said he was “sickened” by the photo-op at the church. 

“Too many foreign and domestic policy choices have become militarised; too many military missions have become politicised,” Mullen wrote, also in the Atlantic. “This is not the time for stunts. This is the time for leadership.”