Former Gen. James Mattis was one of “best people” hired by incoming President Donald Trump back in 2016. “Mad Dog” Mattis served as Secretary of Defense until he resigned in protest in December 2018 after the president’s initial attempt to abandon the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Mattis left a blisteringly polite resignation letter but said in 2019 that he didn’t want to make the jobs of remaining Trump Administration officials more difficult by attacking the president publicly, saying, “When the time is right to speak out about policy or strategy, I’ll speak out.” The time was right yesterday.
President Trump’s decision to use regular military troops to put down the riots under the Insurrection Act (go here for a ‘splainer of the law) was too much for Mattis to stand. He finally spoke his mind in an op-ed in The Atlantic that excoriated the president. The Marine general began by attacking Trump’s handling of the protests and then continued to chew out the president as only a Marine could do.
“I have watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled,” Mattis wrote. “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. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.”
Mattis specifically attacked President Trump for his plan to invoke the Insurrection Act, writing, “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.”
Mattis also criticized Secretary of Defense Mike Esper use of the term “battlespace” to refer to riot-stricken cities, saying, “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.”
“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 argued. “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 unite 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 must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution,” Mattis says, appealing to voters to fire his former boss. “At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s ‘better angels,’ and listen to them, as we work to unite.”
The former general closes his letter to Americans with an optimistic call to make America great again by returning to our roots as a nation ruled by a Constitution rather than by executive whims, saying, “Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.”
Yesterday, one of my colleagues wrote about the alumni of the Bush Administration lining up against President Trump’s re-election, saying, “By turning to Biden instead of Trump, these former officials are turning to many policies that are the polar opposite of what they supported before. This doesn’t make sense.”
To this, I have to strongly disagree. Gen. Mattis makes the case against Donald Trump, not from a Deep State point of view but from a constitutionalist and originalist point of view. The reason that conservatives should oppose Donald Trump is not that we support the Deep State, but because we still believe in limited, constitutional government and Donald Trump has shown himself to be utterly incapable of leading such a government. Preserving the Constitution and the Republic outweighs temporary policy gains and even Supreme Court appointments.
Even before the bungled Coronavirus response, the president had shown a consistent tendency to ignore the Constitution and the rule of law when they were inconvenient. We saw him declare fake national emergencies for legislative expedience, obstruct investigations into his Administration, violate federal law by withholding taxpayer-funded federal aid in exchange for a quid pro quo that would benefit his campaign. These are only a few of the actions that, as Mattis wrote, “make a mockery of our Constitution.”
Now the president plans to violate the longstanding tradition of not using federal troops for domestic law enforcement. However bad the riots are, they are a local matter, not a federal issue. The fact that the president’s stated purpose is to bully state governments into handling internal matters as the president wants by deploying the military without state approval is a blatant violation of federalism and sets a disturbing trend. [For those who will argue that the 1960s invocations of the Insurrection Act set the precedent that Trump is following, remember that Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson were enforcing federal court orders by the Supreme Court, not meddling in internal state politics and law enforcement.]
In 2016, Donald Trump famously said that he hires only “the best and most serious people.” What, then, are we to make of the fact that so many of these best people leave the Trump Administration with the opinion that Donald Trump is a moron and menace to the Constitution?
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