U.S. President Donald Trump‘s former defence secretary, General James Mattis, joined three living ex-presidents in backing George Floyd protesters following an attack on peaceful demonstrators outside the White House on Monday.
Mattis and former presidents George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama have all spoken out since security forces cracked down on the peaceful protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets in Washington D.C., in order to clear a path through Lafayette Square for a Trump photo op outside a nearby church.
Mattis has remained largely silent since leaving the Trump administration in 2018, and the three former presidents have typically refrained from publicly criticizing the sitting POTUS, with a few exceptions in Obama’s case. Each of them captured widespread attention with their calls for unity and a more peaceful government response after Monday’s incident, although Mattis was the only one to mention Trump by name.
Mattis broke his silence with a harsh rebuke in The Atlantic on Wednesday, suggesting that Trump had made a “mockery of our Constitution” by using military force to break up a peaceful protest so he could stage a photo op. He also referred to the move as an “abuse of executive authority” against a movement that is “defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience.”
“Never did I dream that troops … 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 wrote in the statement.
Mattis added that Americans must unite without Trump’s leadership because the president has no interest in being a unifying leader.
“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 said. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
Trump declared himself a “president of law and order” during a speech on Monday evening, after urging state governors to “dominate” the protests earlier in the day. He also said he was an “ally of all peaceful protesters,” even as security forces broke up the peaceful protest outside the White House gates.
The president also tried to draw a distinction between “peaceful protesters” and members of “an angry mob,” whom he described in Monday’s speech as “professional anarchists … arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa and others.”
He immediately left the White House after the speech to pose with a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church, the so-called “church of presidents.” Many of his current cabinet ministers joined him for the photo op.
Mattis resigned from his post in the Trump administration in late 2018 after the president went against his advice and pulled U.S. support from longtime allies, the Kurds, in Syria.
The president responded to Mattis’ statement by falsely claiming that he gave Mattis the nickname “Mad Dog,” and that Mattis had been fired. (News reports show Mattis was being called “Mad Dog” long before he entered Trump’s orbit.)
Former President Bush, a Republican, also spoke out following the crackdown, without specifically mentioning Trump.
“Laura and I are anguished by the brutal suffocation of George Floyd and disturbed by the injustice and fear that suffocate our country,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. Bush condemned attitudes of “racial superiority,” and said the only way through the current crisis is to “listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving.
“Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place.”
Former president Jimmy Carter also criticized the “tragic racial injustices and consequent backlash” that have played out in recent weeks. “Violence, whether spontaneous or consciously incited, is not a solution,” he wrote in a statement.
“People of power, privilege, and moral conscience must stand up and say “no more” to a racially discriminatory police and justice system, immoral economic disparities between whites and blacks, and government actions that undermine our unified democracy,” Carter said.
“We need a government as good as its people, and we are better than this.”
Barack Obama, Trump’s longtime nemesis, offered his support for the protest movement on Wednesday, in his first on-camera remarks since Floyd’s death.
“For those who have been talking about protest, just remember that this country was founded on protest — it is called the American Revolution,” Obama said during a virtual town hall.
Obama struck a hopeful note with his remarks, and did not mention Trump by name.
Speaking directly to young people of colour, Obama said: “I want you to know that you matter. I want you to know that your lives matter, that your dreams matter.”
He also alluded to a string of recent incidents that have helped fuel the latest outrage, such as the killing of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery and the false police call involving Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher in Central Park.
“You should be able to learn and make mistakes and live a life of joy without having to worry about what’s going to happen when you walk to the store, or go for a jog, or are driving down the street, or looking at some bird in a park,” Obama said.
The Lafayette Square incident also prompted retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Obama, to rebuke the use of force against American citizens in an essay on Tuesday.
Mullen wrote in The Atlantic that it “sickened” him to see security personnel clear a path through protesters for the president.
“I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump’s leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent,” he wrote. He also condemned Mark Esper, the current secretary of defence, for referring to American cities and towns as “battle spaces” to be dominated during a call with governors.
“Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so,” he wrote.
Esper on Wednesday appeared to distance himself from President Trump, after saying that he does not think the situation is “urgent and dire” enough to deploy troops for law enforcement.
“We are not in one of these situations now,” he said.
Amid the high-profile criticism, several Trump allies have come out to defend his use of force against protesters and his threats of deploying the military.
Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, argued in an op-ed for the New York Times that the military must be used to “restore order” in the face of looting. He also backed Trump’s idea to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, a law that would allow him to deploy the military to stop the protests.
“This venerable law, nearly as old as our republic itself, doesn’t amount to ‘martial law’ or the end of democracy, as some excitable critics, ignorant of both the law and our history, have comically suggested,” Cotton wrote. “In fact, the federal government has a constitutional duty to the states to ‘protect each of them from domestic violence.'”
On Monday morning before the Lafayette Square incident, Cotton tweeted out several branches of the military that he’d like to see deployed against the protesters. “No quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters,” he wrote on Twitter.
Other Republicans have tried to draw a more clear distinction between “rioters” and “protesters.”
“There is no right to riot, no right to destroy others’ property and no right to throw rocks at police,” said Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska in a statement. “But there is a fundamental — a constitutional — right to protest, and I’m against clearing out a peaceful protest for a photo op that treats the word of God as a political prop.”
Sasse suggested that every public servant in the U.S. should be “lowering the temperature” by acknowledging “repugnant” police injustices like the killing George Floyd, and by denouncing “riots” as “abhorrent acts of violence.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a staunch Trump ally, blocked a resolution from Democrats in the Senate on Tuesday that would have condemned the use of force against protesters in Lafayette Square. McConnell said the protests had been “hijacked” by violent riots and looting, and suggested that the Democrats’ resolution would not help de-escalate the situation.
“Those are the two issues that Americans want addressed: racial justice, and ending riots. Unfortunately, this resolution … does not address either one of them,” McConnell said.
“Instead, it just indulges in the myopic obsession with President Trump that has come to define the Democratic side of the aisle.”
The resolution called for the Senate to back the “constitutional rights of Americans” to peaceably assemble, exercise their freedom of speech and bring their grievances to the government. It also described “violence and looting” as “unacceptable and contrary to the purpose of peaceful protests.”
The third and final part of the resolution called for Congress to condemn Trump for “ordering federal officers to use gas and rubber bullets against the Americans who were peaceably protesting in Lafayette Square … thereby violating the constitutional rights of those peaceful protesters.”
— With files from The Associated Press