IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Mattis, other military leaders close ranks against Trump

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrives for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Oct. 30, 2017.
Then Secretary of Defense James Mattis arrives for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Oct. 30, 2017.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — It took him three and a half years, but former Trump Defense Secretary Jim Mattis finally unloaded on President Trump regarding the president’s recent actions and rhetoric after the nationwide protests of George Floyd’s death.

“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 writes to The Atlantic.

“We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership,” he continues.

And: “When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. 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.”

Trump, as you’d expect, fired back at Mattis in a pair of tweets Wednesday night.

“I didn’t like his ‘leadership’ style or much else about him, and many others agree. Glad he is gone!”

But here are three reasons why Mattis’ takedown of Trump matters.

One, Mattis was an eyewitness to Trump’s presidency. “In addition to the authority he’s earned over a long and distinguished career, he speaks as one of a handful of high-ranking officials who have been firsthand witnesses to the way Donald Trump has operated as president,” The Dispatch writes of Mattis.

Two, he was seen as one of the early guardrails/validators early in Trump’s administration.

And three, Mattis isn’t alone in respected military voices speaking out against Trump and his actions, joining former Joints Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen and Martin Dempsey, as well as retired Marine General John Allen.

“The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment,” Allen writes.

It’s hard to say we’re at an inflection point, because public opinion of Trump rarely changes — except at the margins.

But these are significant breaks with a president who routinely finds himself fighting unpopular battles.

Talking policy with Benjy: Criminal justice reform vs. policing reform

President Trump has long planned to court skeptical black voters by attacking Joe Biden for his tough-on-crime past and highlighting his own support for criminal justice reform.

But while Trump signed bipartisan legislation aimed at reducing prison sentences, he and his administration drew a hard line on restrictions on police departments, a distinction that the protests are bringing to the fore.

In the most substantive move, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions abandoned the Obama administration’s use of “pattern-or-practice” investigations into police departments and consent decrees to enforce reforms that arose from them — which Sessions argued demoralized police. These probes, used in cities like Ferguson, Chicago and Baltimore, looked for widespread problems, such as recurring use of excessive force, and empowered federal courts to oversee fixes.

“They're important and powerful federal tools for changing police practices that were also hugely unpopular with people allied with the Trump administration,” Ames Grawert, senior counsel at the Brennan Center at NYU Law.

While Attorney General Bill Barr’s DOJ has opened an investigation into the George Floyd case, he has also been sharply critical of efforts to impose restrictions on police departments. He delivered a speech in December warning that “if communities don’t give [police] that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need."

Trump, who relished support from police unions and criticized Black Lives Matter activists in his 2016 campaign, told an audience of cops in 2017 that they should rough up suspects in custody. ” Vice President Mike Pence left a football game to protest players who kneeled during the anthem to highlight police abuse.

Tweet of the day

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

1,858,601: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 22,657 more than yesterday morning.)

107,754: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 1,041 more than yesterday morning).

18.21 million: The number of coronavirus TESTS that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

Three: The number of men connected to the far-right “boogaloo” movement who have been charged in Las Vegas for planning to provoke violence at a protest.

56: The number of mass shootings in May, despite much of the country remaining under coronavirus restrictions.

0: The number of senators who opposed a bill easing restrictions on the Paycheck Protection Program yesterday.

11 points: Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in a new Monmouth poll.

2020 Vision: Trump trails Biden in a trio of state polls

Fox News released three state polls on Wednesday showing Joe Biden leading President Trump in key battleground states, although two of them are within the margin of error.

  • Arizona: Biden 46 percent, Trump 42 percent
  • Ohio: Biden 45 percent, Trump 43 percent
  • Wisconsin: Biden 49 percent, Trump 40 percent

In Arizona’s Senate race, the Fox News poll has Democrat Mark Kelly leading Republican Martha McSally by 13 points, 50 percent to 37 percent.

Ad Watch from Ben Kamisar

President Trump’s campaign just finished up a big ad buy, dropping about $5 million on TV and radio from May 27 through June 3. It’s quite a big buy at this point in the race, especially as Joe Biden is completely off the airwaves.

The big spend isn’t the only interesting thing about the buy. Where the campaign is targeting is worth discussing, too.

Ad rates fluctuate across different markets, which makes comparing dollars a bit misleading. But the Trump campaign’s Top 6 markets during that period (by gross rating points, according to Advertising Analytics data) are Greenville, N.C.; Johnstown, Pa.; Wilkes-Barre-Scranton, Pa.; Green Bay, Wis.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Traverse City, Mich.

These markets are all in battleground states, but they’re the solidly Republican parts where Trump needs to perform strongly in to win in November.

Another thing worth noting: Since it doesn’t cost a ton of money to compete with Trump in some of these less-expensive markets, Democrats aren’t ceding him the airwaves in these Republican-leaning areas.

Traverse City, Green Bay and Johnstown are the Top 3 markets by gross rating point for Priorities USA’s ads over the same period. The Trump campaign spent far more, but the Democratic group didn’t let his message go unanswered.

Senate passes PPP fix

The Senate unanimously passed a fix to the Paycheck Protection Program on Wednesday night – the same version that passed the House last week.

It took the Senate two tries to pass the House’s bill. (The first occurred earlier in the day on Wednesday, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asked for unanimous consent on the legislation, but Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., held up that attempt for changes to be made at a later time.)

Per the bill’s sponsors, and our Hill team, the legislation will:

  • allow forgiveness for expenses beyond the eight-week covered period;
  • eliminate restrictions limiting non-payroll expenses to 25 percent of loan proceeds;
  • eliminate restrictions that limit loan terms to two years;
  • ensure full access to payroll tax deferment for businesses that take PPP loans;
  • extend the rehiring deadline to offset the effect of enhanced unemployment insurance.

Next stop: The president’s desk.

The Lid: So long, farewell

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at some of the candidates who lost —and won — in Tuesday’s primaries.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

The fired State Department attorney general told Congress that he informed three top aides to Mike Pompeo that he was looking into the use of government resources by Pompeo and his wife.

Here’s what former president Barack Obama said in his virtual town hall yesterday.

The New York Times has details on how Trump’s campaign team sees its electoral landscape (and it’s not good for the president.)

Jonathan Allen notes that Trump no longer has what Thomas Jefferson called “the consent of the governed.”

NBC’s Janell Ross writes on the toll that everyday racism takes on black Americans.