'Stunning,' 'powerful,' 'overdue': Romney, Murkowski praise Mattis' stinging Trump rebuke

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she's struggling with whether to back the president's re-election. Trump said he'd back "any candidate" running against her.

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By Dareh Gregorian, Kasie Hunt and Julie Tsirkin

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska on Thursday praised former Defense Secretary James Mattis' blistering critique of President Donald Trump as "true and honest and necessary and overdue."

Murkowski said: "When I saw Gen. Mattis' comments yesterday I felt like perhaps we are getting to a point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up. And so I'm working as one individual to form the right words, knowing that these words really matter so I appreciate General Mattis’ comments."

Trump, however, didn't appreciate Murkowski's.

"Few people know where they’ll be in two years from now, but I do, in the Great State of Alaska (which I love) campaigning against Senator Lisa Murkowski," he wrote in a pair of tweets. "Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don’t care, I’m endorsing. If you have a pulse, I’m with you!"

In a statement in The Atlantic magazine on Wednesday, Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, said Trump has abused his executive authority and used his presidency to further divide the country. "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.

Asked earlier in the day if she'd support the re-election of the president, whom she voted to acquit at his impeachment trial despite behavior she said was "shameful," Murkowski said: "I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time."

Murkowski said she'd continue to work with Trump and his administration in the meantime.

"I think right now, as we are all struggling to find ways to express the words that need to be expressed appropriately, questions about who I'm going to vote for or not going to vote for, I think, are distracting at the moment. I know people might think that's a dodge, but I think there are important conversations that we need to have as an American people among ourselves about where we are right now," she said.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, called Mattis' statement "stunning and powerful."

Without going into detail about the contents of his statement, Romney called him "an American patriot" and "an individual whose judgment I respect." Romney was the only Republican senator who voted to convict Trump on one of the two articles of impeachment.

Trump pushed back against Mattis in a pair of Wednesday night tweets, claiming he'd fired him and labeling him "an overrated general." John Kelly, who was Trump's chief of staff at the time, told The Washington Poston Thursday, "The president has clearly forgotten how it actually happened or is confused."

“The president did not fire him. He did not ask for his resignation,” Kelly, who like Mattis is a retired Marine Corps general, told the paper, adding, "Jim Mattis is an honorable man."

Trump returned to Twitter on Thursday night to double down, saying Kelly hadn't known he was going to fire Mattis because his chief of staff wasn't in his "inner circle." "I did fire James Mattis," Trump tweeted.

In an interview Friday morning with former Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci, Kelly went a step further, and said "I agree with" Mattis' assessment of their former boss.

The president on Thursday night also tweeted a letter he said was written by his former lawyer John Dowd who said he was "appalled" by Mattis' comments. The letter referred to the protesters who were violently forced away from the White House Monday night before Trump walked out for a photo op as "phony" and "terrorists."

Some Republican senators shrugged off Mattis' comments, despite their past support for Trump's former defense secretary.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and a top Trump ally, told Fox News of Mattis: "I admire his service to the nation. But the one thing I would tell General Mattis is that you don't quite understand that from the time President Trump wakes up until he goes to bed there's an effort to destroy his presidency."

Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed.