Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said in the past that he had a "duty of silence" to the administration following his service. On Wednesday, it appeared that duty came to an end.
In scathing terms, Mattis charged Wednesday that President Donald Trump has failed in his duties to the Constitution and the American people with a faltering response to nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Mattis denounced what he called the "militarization" of Washington, D.C., and the use of force to drive protesters away from the White House in what he said was the culmination of a Trump presidency aimed at setting Americans against one another.
"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 said in an article for The Atlantic magazine.
"We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership," the retired Marine general and former head of U.S. Central Command said.
The only recourse for the nation was to "unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society," Mattis said.
Mattis had served Trump as defense secretary since shortly after the inauguration, and mostly kept his disagreements with the mercurial president under wraps. But he resigned in December 2018 over Trump's surprise announcement that U.S. troops would withdraw from Syria, and his constant belittlement of allies.
Since stepping down, he had avoided direct criticism of Trump. But in Wednesday's statement, Mattis was unsparing.
"We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution," he said.
"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," he continued.
The demand is "one that all of us should be able to get behind," Mattis said. "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."
It was those values that Trump had mocked or ignored throughout his term in office, Mattis said, leaving the American people to find a path forward for themselves.
"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," Mattis said.
Trump's choice of Mattis as defense secretary came as something of a surprise, as did Mattis' quick acceptance of the nomination, but there were initial signs that their relationship would be challenged.
In introducing Mattis at his Bedminster, New Jersey, estate in December 2015, Trump called him "Mad Dog," a nickname Mattis detests. In his first meeting with Pentagon reporters, Mattis insisted that they call him "Jim."
After Mattis resigned, Trump appeared to have settled on Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, as a successor, but Shanahan withdrew after details began to emerge over a messy domestic issue.
Trump then picked Mark Esper, who was serving as Army secretary, to be the next civilian leader of the Pentagon. Confirmed by the Senate in July 2019, Esper now also seems to be on thin ice with Trump.
On Monday, Trump berated the nation's governors for what he saw as their "weak" response to the protests and said he was prepared to invoke the Insurrection Act to send active-duty troops into their states.
On Wednesday, Esper said he was against using the Insurrection Act right now and called for healing wounds and ending racism in the nation and within the ranks of the military.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.