Former White House chief of staff General John Kelly has waded into the feud between Donald Trump and General James Mattis, siding against his former boss.
Gen Mattis, who served as Mr Trump’s secretary of defence before quitting in December 2018, released a scathing statement yesterday slamming the President’s response to the mass protests across the United States.
The retired Marine Corps general said he was “angry and appalled” and accused Mr Trump of trying to divide the American people.
The President responded to the criticism on Twitter, saying he was glad Gen Mattis was gone from his administration and it had been an “honour” to fire him.
The thing is, Mr Trump didn’t fire Gen Mattis. The Defence Secretary himself announced he was leaving the administration, citing differences of opinion with the President.
Gen Mattis’s resignation coincided with Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw nearly all of America’s military forces from Syria, a move he opposed vehemently.
Gen Kelly, another retired Marine Corps general, pointed that out in an interview with The Washington Post today. He directly contradicted Mr Trump and defended Gen Mattis, calling him an “honourable man”.
“The President did not fire him. He did not ask for his resignation,” Gen Kelly said.
“The President has clearly forgotten how it actually happened, or is confused. The President tweeted a very positive tweet about Jim until he started to see, on Fox News, their interpretation of his letter. Then he got nasty.
“Jim Mattis is an honourable man.”
Gen Kelly served as Mr Trump’s second White House chief of staff. He left around the same time as Gen Mattis, at the end of 2018.
You will have noticed Gen Kelly’s reference to a letter written by Gen Mattis.
When the then-Defence Secretary announced he was quitting, he explained his reasons in a letter, addressed to Mr Trump and released to the public. Its contents were widely interpreted as a rebuke of the President.
“While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies,” Gen Mattis wrote.
“Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.
“Because you have the right to have a secretary of defence whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.”
In that letter, Gen Mattis identified February 28, 2019, as the end date for his tenure. He said the delay would allow time for Mr Trump to nominate a successor and have them confirmed by the US Senate.
The President responded positively at first, tweeting praise for Gen Mattis and thanking him for his service.
But the reaction to the outgoing secretary’s letter soured Mr Trump’s view of him, and he pushed Gen Mattis out in January 2019 – before his announced end date – replacing him with an acting Defence Secretary instead of one confirmed by the Senate.
Since then, Mr Trump has used Gen Mattis’s early exit to claim he fired him.
Responding to Gen Kelly today, the President claimed he had actually asked Gen Mattis for the resignation letter.
Until this week, Gen Mattis had refrained from publicly criticising Mr Trump. But in a scathing statement to The Atlantic yesterday, that changed.
“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” he said.
“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.
“We must not be distracted by a small number of law-breakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values.”
Gen Mattis appears to have been riled up by the President’s threat to use the military to crack down on rioters, and by the authorities’ controversial use of force to clear a path for Mr Trump’s photo op at a church near the White House three days ago.
“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 circumstances 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,” Gen Mattis said.
“We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battle space’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate’.
“Militarising our response, as we saw 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.”
He stressed the importance of national unity, highlighting America’s efforts during the Second World War and Nazi Germany’s attempts to sow division.
“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,” Gen Mattis said.
“We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.
“We can (be) united 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, to past generations that bled to defend our promise, and to our children.
“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.”
Unlike Gen Mattis, Gen Kelly has spoken out against Mr Trump before. During a public address in February, he criticised the President on a wide range of issues.
Most significantly, he defended impeachment inquiry witness Alexander Vindman, who raised concerns about Mr Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Mr Trump had repeatedly blasted Lieutenant Colonel Vindman and questioned his credibility, accusing him of being a “Never Trumper”.
Gen Kelly stuck up for the witness. He said Lt Col Vindman had acted properly, as Mr Trump’s push for Ukraine to launch an investigation of his political opponent Joe Biden was the equivalent of an “illegal order”.
“We teach them, ‘Don’t follow an illegal order. And if you’re ever given one, you’ll raise it to whoever gives it to you that this is an illegal order, and then tell your boss,’” Gen Kelly said.
He also rejected Mr Trump’s attacks against the media, which he had repeatedly called “the enemy of the people”.
“The media, in my view – and I feel very strongly about this – is not the enemy of the people. We need a free media,” Gen Kelly said.
He slammed Mr Trump’s intervention in the case of Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, who had been accused of serious misconduct, was “exactly the wrong thing to do”.
Gen Kelly said immigrants to the US were “overwhelmingly good people” and “not all rapists” – a clear reference to the President’s rhetoric about Mexican migrants.
And he dismissed Mr Trump’s efforts to reach a deal with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, suggesting the President had been “played”.
“I never did think Kim would do anything other than play us for a while, and he did that fairly effectively,” Gen Kelly said.
On top of all that, the 2018 book Fear: Trump In The White House, written by respected Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, claimed Gen Kelly had described Mr Trump as “an idiot” and “unhinged” during his time as chief of staff.
“He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had,” he reportedly said in one particularly colourful quote.
Mr Trump, for his part, has said Gen Kelly was in “way over his head” as chief of staff and he couldn’t fire him fast enough.