‘Mad Dog’ Mattis Rips Into Trump’s Photo Op and Troop Deployment Threat
President Trump’s former Secretary of Defense James Mattis has taken umbrage with the current Secretary of Defense’s use of the term “battlespace” referring to a federal security crackdown to recent protest-inspired violence on U.S. city streets. And that’s not all.
“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.”
He referred to reports yesterday that peaceful protesters around the White House—as well as media and Episcopal clergy—were forcibly removed with pepper balls, flash bangs and the aggressive use of plastic shields from the area to make way for the president’s photo op in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church. The county government of nearby Arlington, Virginia, was so incensed by the spectacle that they removed all of their police officers from the city by 8 p.m. that night.
Monday night’s staged sojourn by the president also included Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley, who said later that they had no idea “where they were going” when asked to walk with the president, though they were seen overseeing “their troops” while cameras rolled.
The stagecraft accompanied Trump’s announcement that federal troops would be ordered to D.C. and to cities across the country —against governors’ wishes if need be — to quell the violence in the streets. A move that has been endorsed by some of my fellow writers on this page.
[Many have cited the June 1, Morning Consult poll that found that 58 percent of respondents favored “calling in the military” to quell the violence on city streets. Note from the actual language that it suggests the choice of governors to do the “calling,” not imposition by Washington. This has been a hotly debated issue among commenters here at TAC.]
Nonetheless, Trump’s law and order declaration did not, however, go down well with everyone inside the military, as TAC’s Mark Perry pointed out on TAC yesterday. But James “Mad Dog” Mattis is the highest ranking former officer to say it publicly.
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.
We must reject any thinking of our cities as a “battlespace” that our uniformed military is called upon to “dominate.” At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict— between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part.
Some will no doubt criticize Mattis, who left the administration shortly after Trump had announced he wanted an immediate pullout of U.S. troops from Syria in December 2018, for playing politics. Mattis went on in his released statement to criticize the president for not uniting the American people, a familiar refrain of Trump’s political opponents:
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.
This passage sent Trump’s supporters into a rage, but the more interesting from this writer’s perspective is the timing of the statement regarding troop deployment to the cities. He was joined yesterday by Gen. John Allen, the former commander of American forces in Afghanistan, who published his own broadside against Trump’s photo op in Foreign Policy yesterday, saying the crackdown on peaceful protesters and the threat of federal troops in the state “may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”
“It wasn’t enough that peaceful protesters had just been deprived of their first-amendment rights—this photo-op sought to legitimize that abuse with a layer of religion,” wrote Allen, speaking directly of Trump’s use of the bible in the photos in front of the church, which had sustained damage from in the violent protests the night before.
Unlike other presidents in which the military has staying virtually silent—particularly under Republican leadership—there appears to be a splitting in the ranks and a willingness for service members, retired and active duty, to speak out on matters of national politics. In a way, this has been encouraged: the politicization of the military, starting in recent times with celebrity generals like David Petraeus, the media’s cooptation of military figures as “message force multipliers” and pundits, the rabid use of veterans to exploit hot button stories like the pardon of Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher or the firing of Captain Brett Crozier. Social media does not discern between active duty or veteran—everyone has an opinion.
But the military was supposed to be the one institution that was four square behind the president and he has long looked to the military to embolden his lack of foreign policy and national security experience. It is also the institution, that, for better or worse, is the most well regarded by the American people in poll after poll, year after year. It could be that this is more than anti-Trumpism (though Trump’s approval ratings have been slipping with active duty military year-over-year). Maybe the old sages like Mattis and Allen sense that their own politicization is about to undermine that regard. For those of us who are skeptical of federal armies being sent out to conduct law enforcement duties without the consent of governors, this is welcome news for us, whether we personally like these guys or not.