Following Mattis' Trump rebuke, many Republicans at a loss for words

"When General Mattis speaks ... people listen," Lindsey Graham once said. So, will Republicans listen now that Mattis has rebuked Trump?
Image: Defense Secretary James Mattis during a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Kabul
Defense Secretary James Mattis during a joint press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Kabul, Afghanistan.Jawad Jalali / EPA file

As part of the fallout from the Lafayette Square scandal, former Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote a rather extraordinary rebuke of Donald Trump on Wednesday, condemning the president for being divisive, immature, and cavalier about abusing his powers. One of the questions hanging over the political world yesterday was how the Republican Party would respond to the retired four-star general's belief that the nation's sitting chief executive poses a threat to our constitutional system of government.

Indeed, Mattis' unique public profile lent his words added weight. The former Pentagon chief is a rare figure who enjoys broad, bipartisan support, even in a sharply divided Congress. The Washington Post yesterday noted remarks Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) delivered about Mattis during his tenure in the president's cabinet.

"You're somewhere between Ronald Reagan and the Pope," Graham said, referring to previous award winners. "You're a Marine's Marine. You're a man's man. You've got a heart of gold. … One thing I can tell you about the general: Don't play him, you'll regret it." But Graham gave Mattis more than just character praise. He said Mattis was one of the few leaders in Washington that other leaders in Washington listened to. "There are very few people you can quote that the Senate and House cares about. When General Mattis speaks as secretary of defense, people listen," Graham said.

So, will Graham and his colleagues listen now? Broadly speaking, Republicans could be broken up into four groups.

The first is the smallest contingent: Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) offered support for Mattis, suggesting they agreed with -- or at least tacitly supported -- his rebuke of Trump.

The second is the largest faction: as Rachel noted on the show last night, most Republicans pretended they were completely unaware of what Mattis had to say the day before. By one account, GOP senators "did not discuss Mattis's criticism of Trump at their closed-door policy lunch." For this group of Republicans, the best way to respond to Mattis' rebuke was to pretend it never happened.

The third contingent peddled subtle criticisms of the retired four-star general. Lindsey Graham suggested Mattis, who served alongside Trump for two years, had simply been misled by the media. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), meanwhile, said he likes the former Pentagon chief, but as the Oklahoman sees it, Mattis is a disgruntled former employee: "Once you're fired, sometimes that affects your attitude."

For the record, Mattis wasn't fired.

Finally, there's the president, who had some options. Trump could've ignored the former secretary's criticisms. He also could've presented a defense of his record.

But Trump being Trump, he spent part of yesterday whining about what an "overrated" general Mattis was -- raising the obvious question of why the president was so desperate to add him to his cabinet -- and insisting he'd actually fired the former Defense secretary.

When former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly explained that Trump was plainly wrong, the president said his former chief of staff didn't know about his plan to fire Mattis -- suggesting Trump had a secret plan to oust the Pentagon chief.

What an embarrassment.