Former US defence secretary James Mattis joined White House protesters in spirit on Wednesday with a stinging rebuke of Donald Trump’s handling of the protests calling him the only President in his lifetime “who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try”.
Mattis is the first former Trump cabinet member to come out so publicly to criticise the president. He also joins a growing list of past and present top defence leaders who have either explicitly criticised Trump or distanced themselves from him for using US military personnel against protesters, specially those who brutally swept aside demonstrators to make way for the President’s now-infamous photo-op at a church, with a copy of the Bible in hand.
“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 to The Atlantic, a news publication. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
“We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership,” he added. Mattis is a highly regarded marine general who Trump loved talking up before they fell out over difference on Syria in the winter of 2018. He was also one of the most bullish of US defence secretaries on closer defence ties with India. He took it upon himself to personally pilot an exemption clause for India, though not explicitly, from a US law that sanctions countries for large defence purchases from Russia.
Mattis’ statement came just hours after Mark Esper, his successor at the Pentagon, tried to distance himself from the use of US military personnel against protesters and, more specifically, from the use of force to disperse peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Square so that Trump and his entourage could walk unmolested to a nearby church for a photo-op to counter uncharitable media coverage of the President taking shelter in the White House underground bunker on the first night of protests.
“The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations,” Esper told reporters. “We are not in one of those situations now.
“I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act,” he added in a significant departure from the US President’s open advocacy of the 200-year-old law to force states to allow US military forces.
Former chairman of the US chiefs of staff Mike Mullen wrote the day before in a piece titled “I cannot remain silent”, also in The Atlantic, “I remain confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform. They will serve with skill and with compassion. They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief, and I am not convinced that the conditions on our streets, as bad as they are, have risen to the level that justifies a heavy reliance on military troops. Certainly, we have not crossed the threshold that would make it appropriate to invoke the provisions of the Insurrection Act.”
Other past US military leaders have spoken out as well recently. But Mattis, or someone with matching clout in the military was the voice that was awaited to unlock the frustration said to have been building up in the forces against the flagrant politicisation of one of the most respected of US institutions.
Trump acknowledged the mounting pushback from US military establishment, when he tried to cut down Mattis, belittling him. “Probably the only thing Barack Obama & I have in common is that we both had the honor of firing Jim Mattis, the world’s most overrated General,” he wrote in a tweet.
“His primary strength was not military, but rather personal public relations. I gave him a new life, things to do, and battles to win, but he seldom ‘brought home the bacon’. I didn’t like his “leadership” style or much else about him, and many others agree. Glad he is gone!”
But can Trump turn the tide?
A new fence outside the White House has kept protesters further away than before, and some more. But it has not deterred them from showing up in larger numbers. They sit around, sing, chant slogans and occasionally fling two-word expletives in the direction of the White House, too far away to matter.
They were entirely peaceful. As were protesters in New York city, largely, and other parts of the country. Protesters have been policing themselves. They try and prevent those among them that try to break into stores, or violently confront law enforcement officers, and destroying property.