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A rebuke like no other: Mattis sees Trump as threat to Constitution

Many presidents have ended up quarreling, to one degree or another, with members of their own cabinet. James Mattis' rebuke of Trump is far more important.
Image: Donald Trump James Mattis
President Donald Trump speaks to the media while gathering for a briefing from his senior military leaders, including Defense Secretary James Mattis in the Cabinet Room at the White House on Oct. 23, 2018.Leah Millis / Reuters file

On the afternoon of June 3, 2016, the New York Times published a report on legal scholars from across the political spectrum who'd come to a striking conclusion: then-candidate Donald Trump, they said, if elected, would be a threat to the rule of law in the United States.

On the afternoon of June 3, 2020, we learned that Donald Trump's former Defense secretary believes those legal scholars were right.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis on Wednesday slammed President Donald Trump's response to the protests over the death of George Floyd, saying the president "tries to divide us" while calling his "bizarre photo op" in front of St. John's Episcopal Church "an abuse of executive authority."

On a handful of notable occasions in recent years, prominent members of the president's team have taken steps to denounce Trump, distance themselves from Trump, or both. Michael Cohen, Anthony Scaramucci, and Omarosa Manigault, for example, have expressed regret for having been part of Trump's operation. To a lesser extent, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly have done the same.

But Mattis' rebuke is qualitatively different. In fact, by some measures, it's an admonishment unlike any in modern American history.

Many presidents have ended up quarreling, to one degree or another, with members of their own cabinet. But Mattis' essay in The Atlantic is more than just a disagreement between a former secretary and his former boss. It shows a retired four-star general and decorated veteran, who worked side by side with Donald Trump for two years, effectively telling the American public that their president is a danger to our system of government.

"We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square," Mattis wrote. "We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution."

If there's a historical parallel for a leading former cabinet official denouncing a sitting president in such unvarnished terms, I'm not aware of it. The fact that it's happened in an election year makes it all the more remarkable.

He added in the same essay:

Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that "The Nazi slogan for destroying us ... was 'Divide and Conquer.' Our American answer is 'In Union there is Strength.'" We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis -- confident that we are better than our politics. 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. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.

Mattis has clearly gone out of his way to avoid taking such a provocative posture. As Rachel noted on the show last night, the former Defense secretary recently wrote a book about his lifetime of service, which remained largely silent on Trump. By all appearances, the retired general would've preferred to keep his concerns about the current president to himself.

But it seems recent events, most notably the offensive against peaceful protestors in Lafeyette Square, pushed Mattis past the breaking point.

As a political matter, this is no small development. In a time of deep divisions and strife, Mattis was a popular public figure who, during his cabinet tenure, enjoyed broad, bipartisan support.

And now that same secretary is denouncing the president in striking terms.

This leaves Trump's Republican enablers in an uncomfortable spot: do GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, many of whom spent years singing the retired general's praises, trust Mattis enough to take his rebuke of the president seriously?

Maybe someone should ask them.