Trump's former chief of staff endorses Mattis' criticisms

Jim Mattis and John Kelly were not peripheral figures in Trump's orbit. They saw him operate up close - and they were apparently not impressed.
Image: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly listens during a meeting
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly listens during a meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean defectors in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 2.Evan Vucci / AP
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By Steve Benen

In recent years, much of the political world has grown accustomed to Donald Trump feuding with former members of his own team. Michael Cohen, Anthony Scaramucci, and Omarosa Manigault, for example, have expressed regret for having been part of the president's operation, and he's lashed out at each accordingly.

But these strained relations shouldn't obscure the fact that prominent figures from Trump's cabinet have also rebuked the president in ways without modern precedent.

Former Defense Secretary James Mattis, for example, wrote a rather extraordinary rebuke of Donald Trump on Wednesday, condemning the president for being divisive, immature, and cavalier about abusing his powers. According to a CNN report, the president's former chief of staff thinks Mattis is right.

Former White House chief of staff John Kelly said Friday he agrees with former Secretary of Defense Gen. Jim Mattis' stark warning this week that President Donald Trump is "the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people" as nationwide protests have intensified over the death of George Floyd. "I agree with him," Kelly told Anthony Scaramucci, former White House communications director, during a live-streamed interview.

Kelly added, "I think we need to look harder at who we elect. I think we should look at people that are running for office and put them through the filter: What is their character like? What are their ethics?"

We've seen plenty of presidents quarrel with aides and allies over the years, but it's worth pausing to appreciate just how remarkable these circumstances are: a sitting president's former Pentagon chief and former White House chief of staff worked at his side for two years, and they're now letting the public know they have some rather serious concerns about their former boss.

What's more, Mattis and Kelly -- two former generals with eight stars between them -- made these public declarations the same week, in an election year.

I'll gladly defer to presidential historians who can speak to this with more authority than I can, but I'm at a loss trying to think of a historical parallel for this in the American tradition. The former Defense secretary and former White House chief of staff were not peripheral figures in Trump's orbit; they saw him operate up close. Kelly even served as the president's Homeland Security secretary.

And now they're letting voters know they weren't impressed.

I don't seriously expect the president's die-hard followers to listen to Trump's more progressive detractors, but when leading members of Trump's own team signal their concerns about his capabilities, it should give everyone pause.