Former Defense Secretary James Mattis on Wednesday slammed President Donald Trump's response to the protests over the death of George Floyd, saying the president "tries to divide us" while calling his "bizarre photo op" in front of St. John's Episcopal Church "an abuse of executive authority."
"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.
"Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that 'The Nazi slogan for destroying us ... was "Divide and Conquer." Our American answer is "In Union there is Strength."' We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis — confident that we are better than our politics," Mattis wrote.
In the stunning rebuke of his former boss, Mattis, a retired general, said he'd promised to defend the Constitution when he was sworn into the Marine Corps "some 50 years ago."
"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," Mattis wrote, referring to Monday night's federal show of force to clear protesters from the front of the White House.
After they were cleared, Trump walked across Lafayette Square with Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others to pose for a picture with a Bible in front of the church, which had been damaged in a riot Sunday night. The photo opportunity came minutes after Trump announced that he was prepared to call in the military to handle unruly protesters around the country.
"We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution," Mattis wrote.
"We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose," wrote Mattis, whom Trump would often refer to as "Mad Dog," a nickname Mattis didn't like.
Trump, he said, is a divider, and the country is "witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort."
"We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens," he wrote.
Reacting to Mattis' decision to speak out publicly against Trump, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement, "That Secretary Mattis, someone who President Trump used to hail as 'Mad Dog Mattis,' felt so strongly the need to speak up today further underscores how devastatingly destructive Donald Trump is to our country as president."
Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country
Mattis resigned in December 2018, suggesting in his resignation letter that Trump wasn't treating allies with respect and hadn't been "clear-eyed" about U.S. enemies and competitors. The president, he said, should have a defense chief who shares his views.
Trump wound up sending Mattis packing two months before his scheduled resignation date and later called him "the world's most overrated general."
Trump tweeted that insult again along with some new ones on Wednesday night after the Atlantic article was published.
"I didn’t like his 'leadership' style or much else about him, and many others agree. Glad he is gone!" Trump tweeted.
He also claimed he created the moniker "Mad Dog," which Mattis had been called since at least 2004 — over a decade before he met Trump.
Mattis told The Atlantic last year that he had no plans to speak out against the administration, saying, "You need to give the people who are still there as much opportunity as possible to defend the country."
But he added: "There is a period in which I owe my silence. It's not eternal. It's not going to be forever."
That period came to an end this week.
"I have watched this week's unfolding events, angry and appalled. 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," Mattis said.
Earlier Wednesday, top Army and Navy brass released statements acknowledging the pain caused around the country by Floyd's death. National Guard Bureau chief Gen. Joseph Lengyel — whose troops were involved in Monday night's forcible dispersal of protesters in front of the White House — issued his own statement Wednesday night, saying he was "sickened by the death of George Floyd."
"We must be better," he said.