Trump under fire from US military after troops threat

President criticised by Mattis and Kelly as Republican senator ‘struggles’ to back him

Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn, New York, demonstration over the death of George Floyd: “We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership,” says Gen James Mattis. Photograph: Timothy A Clary

Cadman Plaza, Brooklyn, New York, demonstration over the death of George Floyd: “We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership,” says Gen James Mattis. Photograph: Timothy A Clary

 

President Donald Trump’s threat to deploy the US military to quell protests across America has been strongly criticised by leading military figures as tensions over the killing of African-American man George Floyd continued to reverberate on Thursday.

Former defence secretary James Mattis launched a blistering attack on Mr Trump, as he denounced the president’s threat on Monday to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act and send active duty troops to states.

Mr Floyd (46) died after he was restrained by a white policeman who pressed his knee on his neck last week in Minneapolis.

“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the constitution,” Mr Mattis said in a statement to the Atlantic.

“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.”

A four-star general who retired from the Trump administration in 2018, Mr Mattis said that Mr Trump was “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try”.

‘Mature leadership’

“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.”

Shortly after, Mr Trump hit back at his former defence secretary on Twitter. “Probably the only thing Barack Obama & I have in common is that we both had the honor of firing Jim Mattis, the world’s most overrated General,” he wrote. “His primary strength was not military, but rather personal public relations. I gave him a new life, things to do, and battles to win, but he seldom ‘brought home the bacon’.”

Former White House chief of staff John Kelly, also a retired military leader, rowed in behind Mr Mattis on Thursday, describing him as an “honourable man”. He also disputed Mr Trump’s claim that he fired Mr Mattis.

“The president did not fire him. He did not ask for his resignation,” Mr Kelly said. “The president has clearly forgotten how it actually happened or is confused.”

George Floyd memorial demonstration at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, New York: Republican senator Lisa Murkowski is “struggling” with whether she can vote for Trump in November’s election. Photograph: Justin Lane
George Floyd memorial demonstration at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn, New York: Republican senator Lisa Murkowski is “struggling” with whether she can vote for Trump in November’s election. Photograph: Justin Lane

Mr Trump’s current defence secretary, Mark Esper, also said he disagreed with the decision to invoke the Insurrection Act, putting him on a potential collision course with the president.

Uneasiness with Mr Trump’s decision also spread to the political sphere.

In a break with the president, Republican senator Lisa Murkowski said she was “struggling” with whether she could vote for Mr Trump in November’s election.

“I thought Gen Mattis’s words were true and honest and necessary and overdue,” she said.

History and slavery

Asked if she was struggling to support Mr Trump, a Republican president, the Alaska senator replied: “I am struggling with it. I have struggled with it for a long time,” though she added: “I think right now . . . questions about who I’m going to vote for or not going to vote for I think are distracting to the moment.”

Meanwhile, former president Barack Obama urged those protesting in the US to seize on the momentum created by the demonstrations against Mr Floyd’s death.

In his first public comments on the protests that have rocked the country, he said that Mr Floyd’s death and that of other African-Americas were a “result of a long history, of slavery of Jim Crow, of red lining and institutionalised racism that too often have been the plague, the original sin of our society”.

But he also struck a hopeful note, adding that, “as tragic as these past few weeks have been . . . they’ve also been an incredible opportunity for people to be awakened to some of these underlying trends”.

Mr Obama, who was the first African-American to be elected president, in 2009, noted that many of the leading figures of the civil rights movement and other progressive causes like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were young when they tried to implement change in American society.

He said that, compared to the protests of the 1960s, “there is something different” taking place now, with “a far more representative cross-section of America out on the streets peacefully protesting”.

“There is a change in mindset taking place, a greater recognition that we can do better. That is not as a consequence of speeches by politicians, that’s not a result of spotlights in news articles . . . that’s a direct result of activities and organisation and mobilisation and engagement of so many young people.”