While he did not cite any other officials by name, Mattis harshly criticized Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, for their handling of the military response to race-related protests across the country.
Even as Esper reversed a decision to send home active-duty troops on alert to respond to unrest in the national capital region on Wednesday, Mattis argued for deploying the military at home only on “very rare occasions,” and only at the request of state governors.
“We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose,” he wrote.
He cited Esper’s decision to pose in a “bizarre photo op” outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., after Attorney General Bill Barr ordered the clearing of protesters on Monday night. Esper said on Wednesday that he hadn’t known ahead of time that the photo op was happening.
Mattis called the decision to clear protesters in Lafayette Square an “abuse of executive authority” and said that Americans should “reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
Mattis also urged the public to reject Esper’s characterization of American cities as a “‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,’” referring to the defense secretary’s comments comments to governors on Monday. (Esper said on Wednesday that in retrospect he would have used different language “so as not to distract from the more important matters at hand or allow some to suggest that we are militarizing the issue.”)
Mattis noted that when he joined the military, he took an oath to support the U.S. Constitution, and “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.”
Militarizing the response to civil unrest, as Mattis proclaims “we witnessed in Washington, DC,” sets up a “false conflict” between the military and civilian society, he said.
Trump fired back at Mattis on Wednesday night, tweeting: “Probably the only thing Barack Obama & I have in common is that we both had the honor of firing Jim Mattis, the world‘s most overrated General. I asked for his letter of resignation, & felt great about it. His nickname was ‘Chaos‘, which I didn‘t like, & changed to ‘Mad Dog.‘”
Mattis actually resigned in a letter that was widely seen as breaking with Trump over his Syria decision; he was not fired. The “Mad Dog“ nickname had been also associated with Mattis years before his service in the Trump administration.
In a follow up-tweet, Trump added: “His primary strength was not military, but rather personal public relations. I gave him a new life, things to do, and battles to win, but he seldom ‘brought home the bacon‘. I didn‘t like his ‘leadership‘ style or much else about him, and many others agree. Glad he is gone!“
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany also attacked Mattis on Twitter by calling his statement “little more than a self-promotional stunt to appease the DC elite. President @realDonaldTrump is the law and order President that has restored peace to our nation‘s streets. Mattis‘ small words pale in comparison to @POTUS’ strong action.“
Multiple Pentagon spokespeople didn’t respond to requests for comment on Mattis’ statement.